Most people are familiar with two types of computer application: software that serves a useful purpose and malware, which wreaks havoc on your device. There is a third variety that might not cause as much harm as malware, but these unwanted programs can still infiltrate your device and lead to any number of problems—meet grayware.
What is grayware?
Grayware is the general term adopted by the tech industry for computer software hackers and cybercriminals use to infiltrate your computer and/or computer systems. “It is a one-size-fits-all term for everything from viruses to malware, ransomware, trojans, worms, adware, spyware—and any other code that can be delivered onto a victim’s machine,” said Ray Walsh, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.com.
Although grayware programs have existed for as long as computers have been around, it wasn’t until 2004 that these types of programs were grouped officially under one umbrella and given a name, said Bryan Osima, CEO at Uvietech Software.
How does grayware work?
While the impact that grayware has on your device will vary depending on the kind of software involved, it’s typically not as harmful as a computer virus or trojan specifically designed for malicious purposes. Instead, “they are usually annoying, disruptive and have the potential to bog your system resources,” said Osima. The bigger risk is grayware exposing your device to other more damaging viruses than the grayware program itself.
“The typical way most consumers end up with grayware is when they download free software off the internet,” said Osima. It might be, for example, a utility software program you download to help you accomplish some task. Buried within the software could be another program that is grayware.
What is an example of grayware?
Grayware comes in many forms, including:
- Adware. These programs provide advertisers the ability to send targeted advertising to you based on your interests.
- Spyware. This particular type of grayware can monitor your activities and keystrokes to harvest your personal information and send it to advertisers or other entities that could use it to either profit from you or to commit cybercrime.
- Worms. A malicious computer program that works by spreading itself across a network of computers. Worms differ from viruses because they don’t need to attach themselves to any executable file or program to work. In other words, “they are self-activating,” said Osima.
- Trojans. Any kind of malware or virus programmed which disguises itself as legitimate software is a trojan. The average user might see such a program on their computer and believe it’s there for a valid reason, “when in reality, it’s simply malicious software,” said Osima.
- Ransomware. Malicious software of any kind that takes control of your device, locks it up and threatens destruction of your data unless you pay up is called ransomware. “These types of malicious exploits have really exploded in recent times,” said Osima, “and there have been instances where whole governments or corporate networks have been taken over by such programs.” The infiltration of computer systems in 22 municipalities in Texas is just one recent example involving this attack.
How can I protect myself from grayware?
Protecting your digital devices from grayware involves many of the same steps you would take to prevent malware infiltration.
- Update your antivirus protections regularly. These types of programs also screen for grayware applications, too. Ad-blocking and script-blocking extensions can further help you avoid potentially dangerous advertisements that automatically force a victim’s browser to execute grayware. Walsh recommends uMatrix, uBlock, Adblock Plus, Ghostery and Privacy Badger.
- Only install programs from vendors you trust. A lot of the free software you find online gets bundled with grayware, said Osima. It’s important to only download and install applications from companies you know.
- Don’t open unsolicited emails. Grayware is often delivered onto devices using a social-engineering attack called phishing. “Phishing causes a victim to download grayware onto their device or click an infected link in an email,” said Walsh. When in doubt, use a reverse email lookup tool to try and get more information about the sender before opening any links.
- Avoid unfamiliar and unverified websites. Simply visiting a website can sometimes be enough to become infected by grayware. “Hackers can infect a device by using drive-by exploits that automatically download onto the victim’s machine when they visit a webpage,” said Walsh. While it may be difficult to avoid drive-by downloads, having an antivirus or anti-malware program on your device scanning for potential threats is key.
- Run frequent systems checks. Regular audits of the programs installed on your computer will show you which software you never use and which are potentially malware or spyware. “Uninstall these immediately when you find them,” said Osima.
Yes, would-be hackers are growing more sophisticated in their methods of attack, but software that protects your systems from grayware are becoming just as smart. By staying vigilant and keeping your protection software updated, you’ll help ward off possible attacks on your digital life.