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Any software that covertly gathers user information through the user's Internet connection without his or her knowledge, usually for advertising purposes. Spyware applications are typically bundled as a hidden component of freeware or shareware programs that can be downloaded from the Internet. Once installed, the spyware monitors user activity on the Internet and transmits that information in the background to someone else. Spyware can also gather information about e-mail addresses and even passwords and credit card numbers. Also called adware.
Spyware is commonly known as malicious software installed on a machine, sometimes with a user's consent. Some software producers and webmasters who offer downloadable content put spyware in executable downloads in order to earn a profit from a third party or track the activity of a user.
Spyware is a relatively new kind of threat that common anti-virus applications do not yet cover. If you see new toolbars in your Internet Explorer that you didn't intentionally install, if your browser crashes, or if you browser start page has changed without your knowing, you most probably have spyware. But even if you don't see anything, you may be infected, because more and more spyware is emerging that is silently tracking your surfing behavior to create a marketing profile of you that will be sold to advertisement companies.
Spyware can be removed with free products like SuperAntiSpyware and Spybot Search & Destroy. By the way, these free products DO NOT include or install any spyware or ad components. There exists software being promoted as spyware removers where in fact, those programs actually install new spyware components in your computer! There are a lot of spyware removers, just be wary of those not mentioned in the top-10 lists on specialized computer magazines/websites. Any competent IT specialist can point you to the best software for your particular needs.