Are you being bombarded with ads every time you try to browse the web? Is your computer slow and prone to shutting down out of the blue? If this is the case, there is a good chance that your device has been infected with adware. Now let’s see what is it and the different types of it.
What Is Adware?
Adware is unwanted software designed to throw advertisements up on your screen, most often within a web browser. Some security professionals view it as the forerunner of the modern-day PUP (potentially unwanted program). Typically, it uses an underhanded method to either disguise itself as legitimate, or piggyback on another program to trick you into installing it on your PC, tablet, or mobile device.
This program disrupts your browsing experience in the form of excessive advertisements, flashing pop-up windows, banners, in-text links and auto-play video commercials. Its purpose is to generate revenue for its developer and it does this by showing these ads.
History of It
In the beginning, meaning from roughly 1995 on, industry experts considered the first ad-supported software to be part of the larger category of spyware. Soon, security professionals began to differentiate adware from spyware as a less harmful type of PUPs. They were even seen as “legitimate,” at least in theory, because legal businesses with actual offices and payrolls were creating adware software.
But the affiliates to these legitimate businesses often spread it without themselves being checked for legitimacy by the adware vendor. Unchecked, the adware proliferated by every means at their disposal—peer-to-peer sites, botnets, instant messaging infections, and the aforementioned browser hijacks.
With enough time, adware vendors started to shut down their badly behaved affiliates, and issued denials of responsibility for the affiliate’s actions. This was a common pattern of activity during peak adware years, which flourished from about 2005 to 2008. After that, governing authorities started to issue large fines for these offenses, which drove the biggest adware players to pick up their code and leave. More recently, browsers have been cracking down with adblockers, and adblock plugins are ubiquitous. Although these measures protect users from it, they also cause websites to lose revenue from legitimate ads.
Today, although adware persists, it is usually viewed as a form of PUP, which presents a threat level below the category of malware. Nonetheless, it remains popular and always charts highly in our analysis of top consumer detections. In the second half of 2018, it placed second behind banking Trojans (e.g. Emotet) as the number one consumer detection. One reason is, the volume of it is on the rise, perhaps thanks to proliferation of mobile devices and adware making its way into mobile apps. However, adware makers today are consolidating power. In order to stay afloat, they’re using techniques more aggressive than simply hijacking, including hiding within Trojans, bundling with adfraud components, or demonstrating rootkit capability, making them difficult to remove.
What Does It Do?
As advertisements become more complex, so does adware. Some of the more common ways that it acts on computers:
- Infinite Pop-ups: This is classic adware. Sometimes an endless stream will pop at once, while other times closing one only opens the next like bad game of whack-a-mole.
- Spying: With one foot in the spyware family, this kind of adware tracks your activities online and off to figure out what kind of advertisement it should show you.
- Man-in-the-middle attacks: Adware like Superfish operate by redirecting all of your traffic through their system so they can display advertisements, but they do this even over what should be protected connections — like when you connect to your online bank accounts.
- Slowing down your device: Loading and running advertisements draws processing power away from what you want to do, slowing down your device’s performance.
- Eating up your data: Just like there’s a data cost when you download a picture or video, downloading advertisements also eats at your monthly mobile data allowance.
How Do We Get Adware?
There are two main ways by which it sneaks onto your system. In the first one, you download a program—usually freeware or shareware—and it quietly installs adware without your knowledge, or permission. That’s because the program’s author signed up with the adware vendor. Why? Because the revenue generated by the advertisements enables the program to be offered gratis (although even paid software from an untrustworthy source can deliver an adware payload). Then the adware launches its mischief, and the user learns there is a price to pay for “free.”
Types of Adware
The two main types of it are those that occur as a result of a downloaded program and those that are due to browser hijacking.
1. Adware from a Downloaded Program
When you download freeware or shareware, oftentimes adware is included. These free versions programs use it to fund development and distribution. This type of adware doesn’t have malicious intent but can be annoying.
Adware is often confused with spyware. Spyware works in a similar way but is a separate program. It is usually downloaded unknowingly and tracks your internet surfing habits in order to serve ads related to you.
2. On-Site Adware
This type of adware is also referred to as browser hijacking. It is when you visit an infected website and it leads to an unauthorized installation of Adware. Then while browsing, you are bombarded with ads. While we assume that these are coming from the site, they are actually due to the adware that was installed on your device.
Is It Dangerous?
Actually it is more annoying than dangerous. There will be constant banners, in-text ads and pop-ups that appear inside your browser window while surfing the internet. Random windows and tabs may open unexpectedly. Your computer will get slow or crash completely.
There are also cases where this type of malware can collect your data. In this case, the manufacturer can sell your data which shows your browsing history and may include your IP address, search queries, and web pages visited.
Detection and Removal Tools
A user’s device could possibly be infected with malicious adware if there has been a spike in data usage, the appearance of new toolbars on the user’s web browser, redirection of the user’s internet searches to advertising websites, the appearance of unwanted ads in pop-up windows that cannot be easily closed or if the device runs slowly.
Most endpoint security suites have the ability to scan for and remove adware, spyware and other malware programs. A number of software applications, including Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware and Bitdefender’s Adware Removal Tool, are available for free to help computer users search for and remove suspected spyware programs.
To avoid the infections of it, users should be discerning about the types of software they download online, should read end-user license agreements before downloading free software to find out if the software authors will conduct information gathering on their devices, should use a pop-up ad blocker to prevent unexpected windows from opening and should avoid clicking on ads if they are not being displayed on a trusted site.