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  • 07 September 2023
  • 9 min read

The impact and future of surveillanceware on privacy and security

What is surveillanceware? Should we be more concerned about spyware now than ever before? And what does the future of surveillance entail?
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The emergence of surveillanceware and surveillance for hire presents a substantial peril to individuals, businesses, and critical infrastructure. As many conversations and interactions, both physical and social, become subject to constant scrutiny and monitoring, our personal and sensitive data becomes vulnerable to unauthorised access and malicious gain. Surveillanceware technology harbours the capacity to jeopardise our privacy, pilfer our identities, and potentially exert control over our lives.

Whether we like it or not, technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, and, for many, it is necessary in every action we do. We rely on these technological advancements for convenience, efficiency, and security. However, as we embrace the benefits of this digital age, we have also embraced surveillanceware.

What is surveillanceware aka spyware?

Surveillanceware, also commonly known as spyware, refers to malicious software or applications designed to secretly monitor and gather information about a user's computer, smartphone, or online activities without their knowledge or consent. It typically operates in the background, collecting data such as keystrokes, browsing history, login credentials, private messages, and more. The collected information is often transmitted to a remote server controlled by cybercriminals or other malicious actors.

Surveillanceware can be used for various purposes, including:

  • Data theft: Cybercriminals can use spyware to steal sensitive personal or financial information, such as credit card numbers, social security numbers, or login credentials for online accounts.
  • Surveillance: It may be employed for espionage purposes by governments or malicious organisations to monitor the activities of individuals, businesses, or even rival governments. We have seen a sharp rise in spyware nation state attacks over the past few years.
  • Identity theft: The stolen data can be used to impersonate the victim, commit fraud, or engage in other criminal activities.
  • Adware: Some spyware is designed to track a user's online behaviour to deliver targeted advertisements, which can be intrusive and violate user privacy.
  • Keylogging: Spyware can record keystrokes to capture usernames, passwords, and other sensitive information.
  • Screen capture: It may take screenshots of a user's activities, potentially exposing confidential information or leading to ransom scenarios.
  • Remote control: In some cases, spyware can allow malicious actors to remotely control a compromised device, giving them access to files, camera, microphone, and more confidential information.

To protect against surveillanceware or spyware, it is essential to maintain up-to-date security software, be cautious when downloading and installing applications, avoid clicking on suspicious links or email attachments, and regularly update your operating system and software. Additionally, practicing good cyber security hygiene and using strong, unique passwords for online accounts can help mitigate the risk of falling victim to spyware attacks.

Why is surveillanceware such a big concern now?

The significance of and voracious use of surveillanceware aka spyware has grown exponentially. Given the continued growth of digital technology and connectivity, and the potential for spyware to compromise individuals, organisations, and even governments, surveillanceware remains a prominent and evolving concern in the present day.

  • Pervasive digital connectivity: Whether for school, work or our personal lives, the modern world is highly interconnected, with individuals, businesses, and governments relying heavily on digital devices and online services for everything. This increased digital presence offers spyware more opportunities to infiltrate and gather information from various sources.
  • Pervasive monitoring: Increased digital connectivity, leads to increased digital monitoring. Surveillanceware, often covertly installed on devices, allows for the continuous monitoring of a user’s online activities, from browsing habits to personal communications. This can be used for various purposes, ranging from targeted advertising to espionage.
  • Data privacy: As more personal and sensitive data is stored and shared online, the stakes are higher. Spyware can compromise this data, leading to identity theft, financial fraud, and other forms of cybercrime.
  • Advanced surveillanceware: Spyware has evolved and become more sophisticated over time; with many spyware campaigns now conducted by large-scale state-backed initiatives or elusive and malicious hacker groups now leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence. Threat actors use advanced techniques to create spyware that is harder to detect and remove, making it a persistent threat.
  • State-sponsored surveillance: Governments around the world are using surveillanceware to monitor their citizens, often under the guise of national security. This has led to debates about the balance between security and individual privacy rights. And surveillance is not just relegated to domestic activities as we see spyware campaigns run across nations.
  • IoT (Internet of Things) devices: The proliferation of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and smart technology has expanded the attack surface for spyware. These devices may have limited security measures, making them vulnerable to infiltration. With the widespread use of smartphones and mobile apps, spyware can now target these devices, potentially accessing sensitive personal information, location data, and more.
  • Public opinion: Increased awareness of privacy issues has brought surveillanceware to the forefront of public discourse. As surveillanceware becomes more prevalent, there is a growing emphasis on public opinion and education on spotting, avoiding, and reporting. Individuals are being encouraged to be more vigilant about their digital footprint, adopt safe online practices, and use protective software.
  • Challenges in detection and mitigation: Detecting and removing spyware can be challenging, as it often operates covertly and disguises itself as legitimate software. This makes it difficult for individuals and organisations to defend against spyware effectively.

A timeline of how digital surveillance has changed since the 2000s

The history of digital surveillance is a tale of technological advancements, societal changes, and the ever-evolving balance between privacy and security.

  • Early 2000s - proliferation of the Internet: The early 2000s saw the rapid growth of the internet and increasing adoption of high-speed broadband connections, creating new opportunities for surveillance, primarily through data collection by websites and online services.
  • 2001 - 9/11 attacks and the Patriot Act: The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, led to a significant increase in surveillance efforts worldwide. The USA PATRIOT Act was passed in the U.S., granting broad surveillance powers to government agencies. Tools like PRISM were developed, allowing for the collection of internet communications from various service providers.
  • Mid 2000s – rise of social media: The emergence of social media platforms transformed how people shared personal information online. Social media platforms began collecting extensive user data for targeted advertising and other purposes, raising concerns about user privacy.
  • Late 2000s to early 2010s – smartphones and mobile apps: With the ubiquity of smartphones, location tracking became a standard feature, leading to new surveillance capabilities. Mobile apps often collected sensitive data, and concerns about location tracking and data sharing emerged. Furthermore, encryption became a focal point, with debates arising over “backdoors” for law enforcement. Plus, the increase of IoT devices added more entry points for surveillance, raising concerns about the security and privacy implications of smart homes, connected vehicles, and wearable technology.
  • 2013 – Edward Snowden’s revelations: Edward Snowden, a former NSA (National Security Agency) contractor, revealed extensive government surveillance programs, including PRISM and mass data collection. Public awareness of mass surveillance and data privacy grew significantly, leading to increased scrutiny and demand for transparency.
  • 2018 – Cambridge Analytica Scandal: This was significant as the scandal revealed how personal data from Facebook was used for political influence leading to public outrage and calls for stronger data protection regulations.
  • 2020 – COVID-19 pandemic: The pandemic prompted the use of surveillance technologies for contact tracing, monitoring quarantine compliance, and public health measures. Balancing public health needs with privacy concerns became a significant challenge, leading to debates about surveillance's role in crisis response.
  • 2020s – AI (Artificial Intelligence) and facial recognition: AI and facial recognition technologies advanced, enabling more sophisticated surveillance capabilities such as the ability to analyse vast datasets, predict behaviours, and identify patterns. Concerns about invasive surveillance, particularly by governments and law enforcement, grew as facial recognition systems were deployed in public spaces. airports, and even on personal devices.

Overall, the threat of digital surveillance has grown in complexity and scale over the years, influenced by technological innovations, societal shifts, and significant historical events. Balancing security, privacy, and individual rights remains an ongoing challenge for governments, organisations, and individuals in the modern digital landscape.

Types of surveillanceware

Malicious surveillanceware can be used to steal personal information, track user behaviour, or commit fraud. Let us look at the distinct types of surveillanceware to look out for and avoid:

  • Adware: Adware is a form of spyware that tracks a user's online behaviour to deliver targeted advertisements. While not always malicious, some adware can be intrusive and compromise privacy. Adware is often bundled with free software and can redirect you to a more vulnerable setting.
  • Keyloggers: Keyloggers are spyware programs designed to record keystrokes on a compromised device. They capture everything typed, including usernames, passwords, and other sensitive information.
  • Browser hijackers: Browser hijacking spyware takes control of a user’s web browser settings, redirecting users to specific websites, often replacing the default search engine or homepage. They may also collect browsing data.
  • Trojan horses: Trojans are malicious software programs disguised as legitimate applications. They often serve as a delivery mechanism for other forms of surveillanceware and can give attackers control over a compromised device. You may even encounter Remote Access Trojans (RATs). RATs are advanced spyware that allow attackers to gain full remote control over a compromised device. They can access files, execute commands, and even turn the device into a bot for various malicious activities.
  • Webcam and microphone spyware: This type of surveillanceware can surreptitiously access a device's webcam and microphone, potentially allowing attackers to eavesdrop on conversations and capture video footage.
  • Screen recorders: Screen recording spyware captures screenshots or records the screen activity of a device, allowing the attacker to see what the user is doing. This can expose confidential information.
  • Mobile spyware: Spyware designed for mobile devices can monitor calls, messages, GPS (Global Positioning System) location, and other smartphone activities. Some mobile spyware can even remotely control the device.
  • Stalkerware: Used for personal surveillance, often in domestic abuse situations, allowing someone to monitor another person’s device without their knowledge, including location, messages, photos, and more.

  • Data exfiltration spyware: These spyware types focus on stealing sensitive data from a device, such as documents, photos, and personal information. The stolen data is then transmitted to the attacker.
  • System monitors spyware: Can capture screenshots, log keystrokes, track websites visited, and monitor email communications.
  • Rootkits: Designed to gain administrative control over a device and can hide its presence or the presence of other software, making detection difficult.

Protecting against surveillanceware involves using reputable antivirus and anti-malware software, regularly updating software and operating systems, being cautious when downloading and installing applications, and practicing good cyber security hygiene.

The future of surveillanceware

Like every cyber threat and risk, surveillanceware does not stand still as threat actors are always looking and seeking out new ways to leverage this malicious technology. So, what does the future of spyware look like?

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML): AI and ML technologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are being integrated into surveillance tools to analyse enormous amounts of data in real-time, recognise patterns, and make predictions. Attackers may leverage AI and machine learning to develop more efficient surveillanceware that can adapt to its environment and avoid detection.
  • Ransomware convergence: Surveillanceware may be combined with ransomware attacks, where attackers first steal sensitive data using spyware and then encrypt the victim's data, demanding a ransom for its release.
  • Integration with IoT devices: As more devices become connected to the Internet, there will be an increased integration of surveillance tools with IoT devices. This will allow for more comprehensive monitoring of environments and individuals. Securing these devices will become a crucial cyber security challenge.
  • Supply chain attacks: As organisations improve their primary security infrastructure, threat actors will continue and increase their attacks on the supply chain. Surveillanceware may be injected into the supply chain, compromising software and hardware at the source. Organisations will need to enhance supply chain security to combat this.
  • Big data: Surveillance tools will increasingly leverage big data analytics to process and analyse vast amounts of data collected from various sources. This will help in making more informed decisions and identifying trends and threats. Cybercriminals and state-sponsored actors will increasingly use surveillanceware in highly targeted attacks against organisations, governments, and individuals. This could lead to more significant data breaches and espionage incidents.
  • Drones: Drones equipped with cameras and sensors will be increasingly used for surveillance purposes, especially in hard-to-reach or dangerous areas.

The future of surveillanceware presents both challenges and opportunities for organisations, cyber security, and cyber security awareness. Organisations must stay vigilant, adapt to evolving threats, invest in advanced cyber security solutions, and prioritise educating their employees and users about the risks of surveillanceware.

Additionally, policymakers and cyber security experts will play a crucial role in shaping regulations and practices that protect individuals' privacy and digital rights.

If you would like informationabout how The Security Company can help you to formulate a cyber security training and awareness program for your organisation or if you would like a demo of our spyware and malware products ... please contact our Head of Business Development and Sales,  Jenny Mandley.

The Security Company's vast library of customised and non-customised products and services are tailored for small, medium and large organisations and are available in a variety of languages. We also offer bespoke solutions for organisations that desire training and awareness materials built from the ground up.

Written by
Nas Ali
Cyber security and awareness content creator focused on emerging threats and the next wave of cyber security risks like AI, deepfakes and tech 4.0 initiatives in order to build towards a more secure organisational culture.
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