Last week I was asked for advice about a person who thought that their partner was digitally tracking them through the use of keyloggers. The more I heard the more convinced I was that keylogging was occurring.
The partner of this woman would discover her passwords, log into social networks and post as her, grill her about her internet usage, and even take her phone away as “punishment” at will. The level of surveillance being described was abusive, pure and simple.
Keyloggers are hardware devices or computer programs that record keystrokes (some will even track mouse co-ordinates and clicks). The stream of characters are logged somewhere accessible for the program installer to study.
Keylogging software and hardware is not illegal. Like most technology it can be used to help or harm, however keylogging and spyware dwell in a grey ethical and legal area. Most often keylogging is the domain of malware installed without the users' consent with the sole purpose of harvesting usernames and passwords to bank accounts, email and other sensitive information, to commit fraud.
Even the “legitimate” uses when installed on your own hardware are questionable at best. The installer is not doing it to track their own movements, after all. Keylogging software doesn’t tend to advertise itself to the other users of the computer - its effectiveness lies in it staying undetected.
By the time keylogging solutions are seen as a valid next step, trust is already gone.
Even at the corporate level, the use of keyloggers is a double-edged technology. Keylogging is generally indiscriminate in its approach. The logs, or proof, that an employee is misusing their workstation or internet access may also contain the login details of their bank account or other private data that can constitute the key components of identity theft. Use of keyloggers with the best intentions may still make data available to you that you have no legal right to store.
Keyloggers always constitute an identity and security risk to someone.
Proponents of keylogging, as a form of protection in corporate environments, often do not disclose that there are better and more constructive ways of preventing misuse of technology. I think their thrill is in catching people after the fact rather than proactively trying to create a reason for people not to behave that way.
When it's all said and done, I don’t believe keyloggers are very effective at stopping anything, but they are wonderful at creating environments based on fear and maintaining a power imbalance where the technically capable can spy on those less technically savvy. Even the best justifications that I have had for the use of keyloggers (usually by the private-eye-esque developers) are frankly creepy.
The Australian Institute of Criminology notes that keylogging is dubious legal proof at best, since it only tells you what was entered, not who entered it.
It can be very hard to tell if there is a keylogger installed. Good, up to date virus detectors should be able to scan for the known keyloggers. Hardware keyloggers sit between the keyboard lead and the back of the computer, so you may be able to see it and disconnect it.
I have read suggestions that most keyloggers can be thwarted by using on-screen keyboards - a fairly standard accessibility feature of the modern operating system. But it is not foolproof.
Ultimately if you have to use a computer that you can’t trust, you can use a “live” Linux desktop (such as Ubuntu) which boots from a USB stick if you want to make sure that a keylogger is not running.
Finally, if you think that you have a keylogger installed on your machine by a scammer you can get information from Scam Watch. The presence of a keylogger is most commonly caused by your computer being compromised by malware from the internet. Update your software, review your own computer security and browsing behaviour before pointing the finger at the people around you.
If you fear that your partner is using keylogging and other technical forms of surveillance to track and control your behaviour, please seek help. Digital stalking creates anxiety, depression and can completely undermine your relationships.
For those people who deliberately install keyloggers on their partner's computer, please go and read a modern definition of domestic violence and seriously reconsider your behaviour. Do not fool yourself by thinking that it is just harmless “protection”.
For more help see www.domesticviolence.nsw.gov.au/internet_safety.
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