No matter how tight you make your system’s defenses, you shouldn’t get complacent. In addition to taking the aforementioned precautions against infection, keep an eye out for these signs of spyware’s presence.
One red flag is a system that runs sluggishly. Of course, older computers slow downgradually over time, but watch for a sudden drop in performance. Also keep an eye out for a lot of hard drive activity and software pauses, especially if they happen even when your computer is not running a lot of programs.
In general, you should treat strange and unexpected behavior—such as the launch of applications that you didn’t open directly—with suspicion. This is no big deal if you’ve set programs to open automatically when the computer turns on, but it could be problematic if this happens when you’re in the middle of a session. It’s particularly suspect if windows appear briefly and then disappear again, a sign of a program loading and then hiding itself.
Every spyware program and system setup is different, so we can’t really give you a definitive checklist; but the more suspicious occurrences you notice, the more likely it is that your computer has been infected. Other odd actions include unexplained mouse movements or text input, which might be a sign of something unknown working in the background; changes to the settings of the operating system; and the appearance of application shortcuts that you haven’t noticed before.
Spyware will try to run invisibly, but it will still use up memory and CPU time. So you should check what programs and processes are running on your computer. On a Windows machine, you can use Task Manager, which you launch by searching for it in the taskbar box. Then switch to the Processes tab to see all the applications and processes currently in memory. On macOS, take advantage of a similar tool called Activity Monitor, which you can find by opening Spotlight (hit the Cmd+Space keyboard shortcut) and searching for Activity Monitor. Under the CPU tab you’ll see a list of programs and processes currently running, as well as how much of your computer’s system resources they’re taking up.
What should you look for in Task Manager or Activity Monitor? Annoyingly, malicious tools frequently have names that look as innocuous as possible. This means we can’t give you a definitive list of terms that indicate spyware. Instead, keep an eye out for applications or processes that you don’t recognize or remember launching, then do a quick web search for their names to find out if they’re legitimate or not.
The good news is that even as spyware becomes smarter and more sophisticated, browsers and operating systems are including more security tools. Still, you should always keep your system, its programs, and its security tools up to date with the latest patches.