What is the Difference Between Adware and Spyware?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2019
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Adware and spyware are two new concepts that have developed along with the popularization of the Internet. While usually not as harmful as viruses, adware and spyware can still be quite malicious and make attempting to browse the Internet a nightmare. Understanding the differences between adware and spyware can help identify computers that have been infected with these programs.

Adware is generally considered to be a less malicious form of advertising that is found throughout the Internet. Often, downloading free programs, such as games, will result in a simultaneous download of adware. Adware consists of pop-up ads and links that try to direct the user to a different website. Makers of free Internet applications, known as freeware, often use adware as a means of offsetting costs without charging customers for downloads.

Adware and spyware are easily confused, thanks to the nefarious practice of creating programs that look like adware, but function as spyware. Instead of simply tossing up slightly annoying advertisements, spyware is capable of tracking the actions of a computer user. This is not restricted to browser use, although it certainly can record websites visited. Spyware can track keystrokes, allowing it to memorize passwords, account information, and even credit card numbers.


In the best case scenario, spyware may simply use this information to create targeted ads for the use. Unfortunately, quite a lot of spyware can do far worse, and is a pathway to fraud and identity theft. Spyware imbeds into the hard drive and may not show up on traditional anti-virus scans, since it is not technically a virus. Luckily, there are many anti-spyware programs that can hunt these unpleasant programs down and fully eliminate them from the system.

There are certain signs left behind by adware and spyware programs that can help identify these invasive tools. Adware will consist mostly of pop-up advertisements that start when a specific program is opened, such as a downloaded game. The advertisements are often from a select group of sponsors, and thus may repeat regularly.

Spyware, in contrast, is often sneakier in its invasiveness. If a homepage changes, links consistently redirect to a different website, or new toolbars appear on the browser, this may be a give away of spyware. Spyware programs that track keystrokes may also tattle on themselves by producing a series of ads that relate to something the user said in a chat, non-Internet document, or email. If a person sent a chat message to his mom asking for a tuna fish recipe, and suddenly is inundated with fish-related ads, there is a good chance that spyware is on the loose.


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