Search Penny Hill Press

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Spyware: Background and Policy Issues for Congress

Patricia Moloney Figliola
Specialist in Internet and Telecommunications Policy

The term “spyware” generally refers to any software that is downloaded onto a computer without the owner’s or user’s knowledge. Spyware may collect information about a computer user’s activities and transmit that information to someone else. It may change computer settings, or cause “pop-up” advertisements to appear (in that context, it is called “adware”). Spyware may redirect a web browser to a site different from what the user intended to visit, or change the user’s home page. A type of spyware called “keylogging” software records individual keystrokes, even if the author modifies or deletes what was written, or if the characters do not appear on the monitor. Thus, passwords, credit card numbers, and other personally identifiable information may be captured and relayed to unauthorized recipients.

Some of these software programs have legitimate applications the computer user wants. They obtain the moniker “spyware” when they are installed surreptitiously, or perform additional functions of which the user is unaware. Users typically do not realize that spyware is on their computer. They may have unknowingly downloaded it from the Internet by clicking within a website, or it might have been included in an attachment to an electronic mail message (e-mail) or embedded in other software.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has produced a consumer alert on spyware. The alert provides a list of warning signs that indicate that a computer might be infected with spyware and advice on what to do if it is. Additionally, the FTC has consumer information on spyware that includes a link to file a complaint with the commission through its “OnGuard Online” website.

Several states have passed spyware laws, but there was no specific federal law and no legislation introduced in the 111
th Congress.

Date of Report: January 12, 2011
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: RL32706
Price: $29.95

Follow us on TWITTER at or #CRSreports

Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail
Penny Hill Press  or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.