What's a Keylogger? Should I Be Afraid?

By George Khoury, Esq. on July 10, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Simply stated, a keylogger is a piece of hardware or software that logs every single keystroke made on a computer's keyboard. Basically, it's an invisible set of eyes watching and recording every single press of a key on a keyboard. The use of keyloggers has been portrayed in television and movies as an easy way for hackers to steal usable information.

In real life, hackers use keylogging to steal account numbers, usernames, passwords, financial information, ATM pin codes, and more. However, it is worth noting that there are some legitimate uses for keylogging, such as industrial design, and when the good guys need to engage in hacking or espionage.

How Does Keylogging Work?

Unfortunately, individuals do need to be aware of how keyloggers work and should be exceedingly careful about their use of public computers, public wifi networks, or even just using wireless or even wired keyboards in public places. The advice of cybersecurity experts may sound a bit comical, but seems rather rational given the persistent threat from hackers: "you should treat public computers like public bathrooms."

Most frequently, keyloggers can work either through software installed directly onto the computer, or via a separate piece of hardware that plugs into the computer or just the keyboard. Other types of keyloggers can capture information just by the acoustic sound each keystroke makes, or via electromagnetic emissions sensed from over 50 feet away. When a person uses a computer that has a keylogger installed, each keystroke will be recorded, and the person who installed the software will either receive the data remotely, or may need to physically access the machine to retrieve the data.

Tips to Stay Safe

The fact is that keylogging has been around for decades, with the first use being noted in the 1970s. It likely isn't going anywhere for the time being, especially as advances in technology create both more legitimate and illegitimate uses.

To stay safe from keyloggers, a person should generally avoid the use of public computers, or public wifi networks, such as those in hotel lobbies or libraries, to check email, bank accounts, or visit sites that require usernames and passwords. Essentially, public computers need to be treated as if anyone can read or see anything you are typing. Lastly, it is important to note that use of public wifi networks should always be done with caution as hackers have been known to set up fake public networks that will actually function, but also will give them access to everything you do, and your system, while on the network.

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