The differences between ransomware, spyware and malware

There’s a common assumption that they’re all the same, yet the differences between ransomware, spyware and malware are significant.

Tuesday, 2 July, 2024

It’s an open secret that the internet is infested with bad actors, seeking to take advantage of software vulnerabilities and vulnerable software users.

Last year, there was roughly one malware attack for every person on the planet – a ten per cent increase on 2022’s figure and the highest annual total recorded since 2019.

The recent Ticketmaster hack highlights the risks, with over 550 million consumer records being openly sold on the Dark Web long before Ticketmaster even acknowledged a breach.

You can’t always trust big companies to keep your data safe, which places an undue burden on you as a private individual to protect yourself against digital threats.

In first instance, that requires a recognition that these threats aren’t exactly the same, with key differences between ransomware, spyware and malware affecting how they manifest…

The spy who loved me

We’re all familiar with dating site romance scams, mysterious Nigerian princes and offers of cheap V1agra! received by email.

However, these are merely the tip of a malware iceberg endlessly traversing the surface web seeking new victims.

Malware itself is a broad church comprised of numerous overlapping (yet often distinct) elements:

  • Ransomware. An attempt to prevent users accessing their own data (or threatening to release sensitive data) unless a ransom is paid.
  • Spyware. Covert software installed onto a victim’s device, used to monitor activities for the purposes of reselling financial information to criminals or ad agencies.
  • Trojans. While spyware is designed to covertly record activity on a system, a trojan aims to wrestle control of it altogether, before launching a campaign of extortion.
  • Keylogging. A category of spyware enabling remote users to monitor every key press, gleaning passwords and login credentials in preparation for accessing them later.
  • Viruses. Rather like the cold virus, these exist for no purpose other than their own replication. They can cause immense damage, including hard drive deletion.
  • Worms. A form of virus, albeit one equipped with the ability to self-replicate and spread to other devices, usually via email or a compromised web browser.
  • Adware. Benign by the standards of the malware variants listed above, adware bombards your browser with unwanted adverts for low-grade goods and services.

These elements may be combined. A worm might install a Trojan, or keylogging and ransomware could jointly be used to lock someone out of their own system.

Staying safe

The differences between ransomware, spyware and malware may seem blurry to a victim, especially one who is in danger of losing either data or access to their own devices.

It was estimated that 72 per cent of global businesses faced at least one ransomware attack last year alone – the highest figure ever reported.

Yet to the IT managers battling this tsunami of bad faith, the nuances of ransomware are incidental. The wider threat of malware is the dominant worry, in all its many forms.

Similarly, private individuals shouldn’t worry too much about the clear differences between ransomware, spyware and malware.

It’s best to treat all threats as equal and fight back by tightening device security as far as possible without unduly compromising day-to-day activities or operating speeds.

Install antivirus software with automatic updates permitted and ensure your router’s firmware remains up to date, while allowing operating systems to auto-update.

Avoid websites with dubious top-level domains, never click on links in unsolicited phishing emails and don’t blithely scan QR codes unless you trust their origins.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!