Welcome to #TechTalkTuesday – where tech terms are defined, explained, and no longer a mystery.
Today’s term is adware. We hear it routinely enough to know that it’s responsible for those often unwanted and often irritating popup ads in our browsers or even on our mobile devices. While much of it is just an annoyance, some adware is manipulative and can even open a door for malicious software to make its way in without detection.
How does adware get onto your device?
Adware generally makes its way onto your device in one of two ways.
A free app or program may be installed onto your device, whether your PC or mobile device, without being aware that it contains adware software. Adware allows the software developer a way to make money, through advertisements. But it also means that you could find you’ve downloaded and installed adware across your systems without having necessarily given your consent to do so. Many mobile device users find that adware gets onto their devices through apps that fall into the category of gaming and entertainment.
There could be an unknown vulnerability in the operating system on your device, or within another app or piece of software installed on your device. This vulnerability can be potentially exploited by hackers who insert malware into your system, including certain types of adware.
How does adware operate?
Most adware installs quietly, and most often without detection, onto each device it can. The goal of adware is to hope that you will click on a displayed advertisement, whether on purpose or accidentally.
Adware exists for the primary purpose of making money. Installing itself on as many devices as is possible allows for the creators of the adware, and the distributing vendors of the software, to use your devices as a source of income.
There are three general ways that third-party ads can generate an income for those responsible for the adware on your device.
- Pay per each install. They are paid every time that the software is installed onto a device.
- Pay per each view. They are paid every time that an advertisement is shown to a user.
- Pay per each click. They are paid every time that an advertisement is clicked on.
Adware can be used to track your browsing activity, along with the things that you are searching for. This allows it to target ads that might have more relevance for you. An additional source of income for the software developer can be possible if they are able to accumulate the data about your browser and search history, along with your location.
On one side of the spectrum, adware is just a pest. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, adware can pose a cybersecurity threat.
Distinguishing between the types of adware can help you gain further insight into it.
Consider that there is legitimate adware. This adware will ask for your permission to view ads and promotions for software. This type of advertising can help a developer to offset some of the costs, which in turn allows them to offer you a free product.
Downloading and installing this adware can allow you free use of a product that may otherwise be cost-prohibitive. You may also opt in to allow the app to collect data the developer can use for marketing efforts. Many do find that the personalized advertisements or sponsored software referrals can be helpful.
Legitimate adware is included by a range of developers, including those with a good reputation. This adware type is a legal and very valid way for a developer to share a free product with users.
The other side of adware is what is known as potentially unwanted applications, abbreviated as PUAs. This encompasses programs that you may not have agreed to have installed onto your PC or device. There is something of a gray area surrounding PUAs. The extent to which PUAs are considered to be malicious, or even illegal, can greatly depend on the end game of the software distributors and the software itself.
Let’s dig deeper.
PUA that is legally deceptive could deliberately make it difficult for users to opt out of the installation of the third-party software that is responsible for the adware. This can be frustrating, but some legitimate developers do rely on this method at times. It can be considered relatively legal to do so if the developer did not knowingly include malware inside of the software itself. PUA that abuses the terms and conditions you agreed to will bombard you with an excessive number of ads. But while there is no malware packaged inside of the adware, there’s little to no resource for action if the user determines it to be an annoyance.
Malicious and potentially illegal PUA adware profits from third parties who are interested in distributing malicious software onto devices. The malware could be intentionally disguised inside the adware software itself, inside of software accompanying it, or within the websites that the adware promotes. Both the adware developers and distributors knowingly and aggressively spread this malicious software.
Generally speaking, when people discuss adware, they tend to reference the software the abuses advertisements and paves the way for malware. Adware can prove to be frustrating to deal with, regardless of the intent behind it. It can very easily go undetected on your device for quite some time.
You should know what it is you need to look for in order to potentially avoid any concerns with invasive software.
Do you have an adware problem?
Several signs could point to one or more of your devices having an unwanted adware infection. Some of these could include the following.
- Unusual device crashing or restarts
- Decreased device performance
- Apps may take longer than usual to load and function
- The device battery may drain faster than usual
- A new homepage on your web browser
- Websites not displaying as they once did
- Redirected searches
- Unusual add-ons to browsers or the addition of a strange new toolbar on PC browsers.
- Installed apps that you don’t recall downloading.
- Unexplained higher than expected data usage and monthly bills.
- Being flooded with pop-up ads. This may even happen when you’re not browsing the internet.
While some adware is relatively harmless, some can be on the aggressive side to make it a challenge to remove. If you do have an adware infection, you will need to take the appropriate steps to remove the applications and clean your system.
Removing and preventing adware
Removing adware can often be as simple as removing the offending application. That said, manually removing it doesn’t guarantee that all components of the software will be removed. There are cybersecurity solutions that can help to clean up your devices.
The prevention of adware installation is perhaps the most effective means to avoid needing to deal with it in the first place. Healthy online habits can go a long way towards protecting yourself against potential cybersecurity risks.
- Ensure all your devices are kept updated. The latest updates for your operating systems, apps and other device software will often contain security patches in them that can protect against previous vulnerabilities.
- Have a healthy mistrust of anything unusual or unknown when you’re navigating the digital world. Remember that almost anything can be a potential risk. Cybercriminals are known for taking advantage of countless ways to infect you with malware and adware.
- Pay attention to links, emails, and even messages on social media that may appear to be from a trusted source. Even just a few extra seconds may be sufficient to show you obvious red flags that signal a scam or other problem.
- Skip pirating software, movies, and other downloads you don’t want to spend on. Aside from the legal concerns, these types of activities can put you squarely in the path of cybercriminals who will take advantage of people’s want for free versus paid. You may find yourself installing adware or seriously damaging viruses.
- Read the terms, read the fine print, know what you’re agreeing to during the installation of software. A fair amount of third-party software will offer an opt-out option. But it could be buried quite deeply. And, let’s face it, many of us simply won’t take the time to look for it.
- Only download and install software and apps from reputable and trusted sources. Even the official app stores linked to your devices may not be completely free from apps with malicious intent. That said, they are much more likely to have safer options.
- Carefully read reviews before installing. You should be able to find reliable user feedback on the apps you’re interested in so that you can take note of any potential negatives associated with them.
- Pay attention to your financial statements. An unexpected subscription charge could indicate that you’ve become the victim of an adware issue.
- Pay attention before clicking or tapping. Some less than reputable ads will strategically place their buttons and links to take advantage of an unintentional click on a link that is infected or leads to a stealthy background download.
Adware has the potential to infect each of us, even those who feel they’re quite aware of the risks. Developers are constantly looking for new stealthy ways to get their software onto your device. It’s up to you to take steps to protect your devices and yourself from the potential cybersecurity threats we all face.