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Spyware You Might Welcome

In the right hands, surveillance software has its place.

Joel P. Bruckenstein, 02/09/2006

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How do you feel about spying? Is it a good idea or a bad idea?

I guess that depends who is doing the spying and who they are spying on. It is a good guess that most Americans think it is okay for their government to spy on foreign enemies and terrorists. Apparently, some Americans think it is okay for the government to secretly spy on their fellow citizens under certain circumstances, provided that their government never spies on them.

What does all of this have to do with technology for advisors? Well, all of the recent news about governmental spying got me thinking about spyware, specifically key loggers. According to Webopedia.com:

A key logger is a type of surveillance software (considered to be either software or spyware) that has the capability to record every keystroke you make to a log file (usually encrypted). A key logger recorder can record instant messages, e-mail, and any information you type at any time using your keyboard. The log file created by the key logger can then be sent to a specified receiver. Some key logger programs will also record any e-mail addresses you use and Web site URLs you visit.

Key loggers are often referred to as spyware or malware. This is because a hacker or criminal can sometimes cause you to unsuspectingly download a key logging program onto your computer. A criminal might also install a key logger on a public computer. The key logging program would record every keystroke on the computer in question, and relay that information to the hacker, who could then scan the log for passwords and other personal information.

Obviously, most people do not think using key loggers for this sort of criminal activity is a good idea. To combat this sort of thing, they purchase anti-spyware software to combat key loggers and other "stealth" programs.

As is the case with spying, however, things are not always black and white. There are times when most readers would consider the use of a key logger justified, or even desirable. Let me give you a few examples.

One reasonable, and some would say desirable, use of a key loggers is to monitor one's own keystrokes. Why would you want to do this? Have you ever typed a few pages of a report, only to have your computer crash? Do you live in an area prone to frequent power outages? Yes, I know that Microsoft Word, for example, has a recovery feature, and I know about surge protectors and uninterruptible power supplies, but unfortunately, based on the feedback I regularly receive from readers, accidents still happen. Logging your own keystrokes with key logger software is one more line of defense against losing precious time and information due to an equipment malfunction.

A second use for key loggers is to make sure that the equipment in your office is being used for business purposes, or only for purposes explicitly permitted under corporate guidelines. Are you worried that employees or others with access to your equipment (janitors, repairmen, etc) are using your computers to visit pornographic sites, place sports bets, or perform other unauthorized tasks?

What about interactions with clients? Is it possible that employees are making representations that they shouldn't through electronic means?

Perhaps a disgruntled employee is removing client information from you computer in an effort to steal your clients and undermine your business.

Only you, with the guidance of legal counsel, can determine under what conditions you may want to employ surveillance techniques in your office, but the capability is available if you wish to use it.

These days, parents of teenagers often use key loggers, either openly, or in the stealth mode, to monitor their children's behavior online.

Recently, I looked at two key logging programs to judge their usefulness performing various tasks. The first program I tried was KGB Spy from Refog Software. KGB Spy's interface is a bit on the minimalist side, but it gets the job done. The simple interface offers a wealth of options. For example, you can choose to record each and every keystroke, or only characters. You can keep track of Web sites visited, or not.

You can launch the program so it can be seen by users, or it can be hidden. The program offers various levels of "invisibility," so you can make it almost impossible for others to locate the program. You can choose to track all users or only a single user on a computer. Clipboard contents can be tracked, or not, at the user's discretion.

A log of all activity can be viewed on the computer containing the program, or it can be e-mailed to you at intervals, in encrypted format if necessary. As an alternative, logs can be delivered by FTP (a fast method of transferring files).

If you are using KGB Spy in a business setting, you might want to have a "splash screen" appear upon booting up the computer, warning the user that the computer is monitored.

It may be overkill, but you can have the program capture screen shots at user set intervals. One feature that may be of particular interest to financial firms is the keyword alert. You can supply the program with a list of keywords, and every time one of the keywords is triggered, an alert will be e-mailed to you. You can even set up filters, so that keyword alerts are triggered in some programs but not in others.

Refog offers three versions of its keylog program. If you intend to use the program strictly for personal use as protection against computer crashes, the free version, Free KGB Key logger, is all you need. If offers all of the basic functionality described above, minus the ability to operate in the stealth mode, the ability to send logs, and the advanced keyword detection. KGB Key logger, at $29.95, offers the stealth mode, the ability to e-mail logs secretly, and the screen shots, but it lacks the ability to deliver log files by FTP, and it lacks advanced keyword detection. The version I tested, KGB Spy, at $39.95, contains all features.

If you are willing to pay a higher price for a more polished looking interface, one of the products from Spectorsoft might appeal to you. Spector Professional Edition is probably the best known product from Spectorsoft. It can record keystrokes, e-mail, e-mail attachments, chats, instant messages, Web sites visited, peer-to-peer downloads, and screenshots. Logs can be viewed on the computer being monitored, but you cannot receive logs by e-mail or FTP.

EBlaster is more of a remote access program. It will monitor and report upon almost everything that Spector Professional will, except the screenshots. It is also the only program discussed here that can immediately capture both incoming and outgoing e-mail. Unlike Spector Professional, you do not log on to the computer to obtain information; it is instead e-mailed to you periodically.

A third program, Spector CNE, is designed to monitor multiple computers on a network. It works in a fashion similar to Spector Professional.

I only tried out the programs briefly, but they seemed to work as promised. I experienced a couple of intermittent problems with KGB Spy. The problems might have been due to the good job that my Zone Alarm security suite was doing. Since these key logger programs are, by definition, spyware, Zone Alarm blocks them unless it is configured properly. One other problem, identified by my colleague Dave Drucker, is that when Windows goes into the hibernate mode it can disable the KGB program.

Under certain conditions, key logger programs may have a place in your technology toolkit. How you use them, and in what configuration, is a decision only you can make. If you do decide that a key-logging program is something you need, products from either Refog or Spectorsoft are solid choices.

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