Key loggers

This opinion first appeared in my ITPro column in the Sydney Morning Herald. This content deals with issues of domestic abuse. If you or anyone you know may be experiencing domestic violence please contact https://www.1800respect.org.au/

Last week I was asked for advice about a person that thought that their partner was digitally tracking them through the use of key loggers. The more I heard the more convinced I was that key logging was occurring. This grown woman would be grilled about her internet usage, her partner would discover her passwords and log into her social networks and post as her and even take her phone being taken away as “punishment”. The level of surveillance being described was abusive, pure and simple.

Key loggers are hardware devices or computer programs that record keystrokes (some will even track mouse coordinates and clicks). The stream of characters are logged somewhere accessible for the program installer to study.

Key logging software and hardware is not illegal. Like most technology it can be used to help or harm, however dwells in a very grey ethical and legal area. Most often key logging 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.

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. Key logging software doesn’t tend to advertise itself to the other users of the computer – its effectiveness lies in it being undetectable.

By the time key logging solutions are seen as a valid next step, trust is already gone.

Even at the corporate level, the use of key loggers is a double edged technology. Key logging is generally indiscriminate in its approach. The proof that an employee is misusing their workstation or internet access may well have also in the log the login details of their bank account or other private data that can constitute the key components of identity theft. Use of key loggers with the best intentions may still make data available to you that you have no legal right to store.

Proponents of key logging activities as a form of protection, often do not disclose that there are better and more constructive ways of preventing  misuse of technology. I think the 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 key loggers 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 read for key loggers (usually made by the private-eye-esque developers) are frankly creepy.

The Australian Institute of Criminology notes that key logging 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 key logger installed. Good, up to date virus detectors should be able to scan for the known key loggers. Hardware key loggers 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 key loggers can be thwarted by using on screen keyboards (a fairly standard accessibility feature of the modern operating system).

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 key logger is not running.

Finally, if you think that you have a key logger installed on your machine by a scammer you can get information from http://www.scamwatch.gov.au/content/index.phtml/tag/SpywareKey-loggers.

If you fear that your partner is using key logging 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 that install key loggers on their partners computers, 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 “protections”.

For more help see http://www.domesticviolence.nsw.gov.au/internet_safety.