What is spyware? Definition, types, and how to keep it off your Mac

Dawna Roberts

Mar 7, 20245 min read

What is spyware? Definition, types, and how to keep it off your Mac: Header image

Online privacy is on everyone’s mind these days. However, our modern digital world is making privacy much more of a challenge to achieve. The internet and shared networks open up untold vulnerabilities, and many of us are unaware of the extreme dangers. One of these threats is spyware.

Keep reading to learn what spyware is, how it works, and why it’s so dangerous. Find out what kinds of spyware are lurking online, how to remove spyware from your device, and how to protect yourself from future attacks. 

What is the meaning of spyware?

Spyware is a blanket term to describe software (malicious and non-malicious alike) that spies on computer activities and sends data back to a central server. This often occurs without a user’s consent or knowledge, leaving the user vulnerable to additional attacks.

What does spyware do?

At its core, spyware does 3 things. First, it infiltrates your system or network. Then, it monitors your activities and gathers data via keystrokes, screenshots, or even video recordings. Finally, the spyware sends the data to a third party who can use it as they wish. 

The malicious type of spyware uses collected data for fraud or financial gain. It may gather information such as your banking details, credit card numbers, your social security number, and driver’s license. It may also collect login credentials to access your online accounts so that hackers can steal from you. 

Why is spyware so dangerous?

When used as malware, spyware is highly dangerous because the perpetrator can gain access to your most sensitive and personal data, leaking it on the dark web for financial gain. This type of threat often leads to identity theft, which is an awful experience. Shockingly, spyware can also disconnect some antivirus software, making it virtually undetectable. 

An image of a person peering through a broken wall.
Image by Pexels

Types of spyware

There are many types of spyware to be aware of and watch out for. Each variety has its own distinct characteristics and methods of operation. Some are simply nuisances, but others are far more dangerous.


Adware infiltrates your device and tracks your online activities to feed you pop-up ads at inconvenient times. It may also sell your information to marketing companies to help them tailor custom ads to you based on your preferences.


Keyloggers can be very dangerous. They log every keystroke you make, so when you log on to your bank or credit card accounts, the spyware tracks the keys you press when entering your username and password. Keyloggers are insidious and meant to steal your login credentials and drain your accounts.


Trojans are pieces of malware that come packed with other seemingly legitimate software. Hackers piggyback spyware payloads onto free software that, when you install it, you get a nasty bonus. 


Rootkit malware installs a backdoor so that hackers can enter a network or device any time they like. Using this type of spyware, attackers can take complete control of the system and take what they want. 

Red Shell spyware

Red Shell spyware is a platform designed to collect massive amounts of data about its target. Red Shell is very dangerous and used mainly in network takeovers and large ransomware attacks. 

Cookie trackers leave tiny breadcrumbs in your system so that other types of malware can detect the information stored there. Cookies collect data about preferences and online activities. Usually harmless, this type of spyware can be damaging and track you across the internet. 

Real-life examples of spyware attacks

The best way to describe a spyware attack is to cite recent examples and the effects they have on the victims. Some notable real-life examples of spyware attacks include the following. 


The Pegasus spyware debacle was all over the news in 2021. The Israel-based NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was found on the phones of political activists, media moguls, journalists, and workers within companies who were clients of NSO Group.

Ghost RAT

Also in 2021, NoxPlayer (a free Android game emulator) was discovered to be laced with spyware capable of remotely controlling a user’s device. Hackers infiltrated BigNox, the game emulator’s developer, and piggybacked their own software in a trojan horse attack. 


Later in 2021, cybersecurity experts discovered a spyware app in South Korea affecting Android devices. The program pretends to be legitimate software while it collects data and remotely controls the device. Around 1,000 devices were affected.

How to remove spyware from your Mac

Despite the threat that spyware poses, you can take action and clean it off your Mac, freeing you from worry. Although you could clean it off manually, the process can be cumbersome, and you may not get all of it, leaving you vulnerable.

The best way to thoroughly clean spyware from your system is by using dedicated antimalware such as CleanMyMac X, powered by Moonlock Engine. The steps to do so are as follows:

  1. Open CleanMyMac X.
  2. On the left side menu, choose Malware Removal.
  3. Click the Scan button.
  4. If any malware is found on your machine, click Remove.

You can now rest assured that any spyware on your machine is gone.

A screenshot of the CleanMyMac X malware removal tool.

How to protect yourself from spyware

The best way to avoid the effects of spyware and protect your devices and network is to never let it in the door in the first place. Follow these cybersecurity best practices to stay safe.

Avoid dangerous downloads

Never download free software unless you know it’s entirely virus/malware-free. Stick to downloading apps from verified sources such as the App Store, which employs a rigorous safety protocol to ensure that all the software on its platform is legitimate.

Do not click on links in email or SMS messages, especially if you don’t know who sent them. Be particularly cautious of messages with a sense of urgency that make you feel panicked. Phishing scams are designed to make you click without thinking.

A screenshot of a link in an email that could potentially lead to spyware.

Always rely on solid antivirus/antimalware software

Use a reputable antivirus program and run deep scans often. Purchase protection that has a track record for being reliable. 

Keep software/hardware updated

Keep your software (apps and operating system) and your hardware updated with the latest security patches and firmware to keep the bad guys out. 

A screenshot showing how to keep macOS updated to avoid spyware.
macOS is a trademark of Apple Inc.

Spyware is just another notch in a hacker’s belt and one method of committing fraud and theft. As long as you know the threats, you can prepare yourself. Watch out for the dangers to keep you and your data safe. 

Dawna Roberts Dawna Roberts
Dawna has spent her entire career in web dev, cybersecurity, and IT. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Adobe, Airtable, Backblaze, Cyberleaf, Lifewire, and other online publications for the past ten years.