This story is over 5 years old

How to Figure Out If Somebody's Spying on You

There are a lot of upsides to living in our always on, ever connected world.

by Adam Estes
Oct 10 2012, 4:00pm

Image via Flickr

There are a lot of upsides to living in our always on, ever connected world. Watching YouTube videos on your pocket computer. Watching YouTube videos in an airplane that's flying through the air. Heck, even watching YouTube videos while sitting on your ass at home is pretty impressive when you really think about it. There are also a lot of downsides, too, though. For all those YouTube videos you like to watch, at any given time, there might be somebody watching you. It could be the government, your tech-savvy ex, or your over-bearing boss. But there's another upside to of living in our always-online world: it's relatively simple to figure out if you're being spied on. Just use your computer!

Before we dig into the different techniques you can use to sniff out your stalker, let's narrow things down a bit. At risk of oversimplifying things, the art of spying can be split into two different camps: analog spying in the real world and digital espionage in the virtual world. Analog, of course, would be comparable to old school film photography. It's pretty cumbersome, takes a lot of work but inevitably produces great results, ike hiding outside of someone's window with binoculars and watching them change their underwear. There's also the classic Strange White Van approach which, as the name implies, involves a strange white van that's simply parked outside your house and full of men in short-sleeve dress shirts monitoring your every move. Again, not to oversimplify anything, but if you spot a strange white van outside your house for multiple days in a row or feel like someone is following you, maybe consider calling the police. In the meantime, close your curtains.

Things get interesting when we start talking about digital espionage. If you have a smartphone, you're connected to the Internet at any given moment. Your location, your browsing history, your text messages and emails, your Fruit Ninja high score — all of this is up for grabs for the right kind of spy. The same goes for your Internet connection at home, and you better believe that somebody trying to find out what you're up to will go to some pretty creative lengths to do so.

Take the example of Megaupload founder and hot tub party connoisseur Kim Dotcom. In addition to his business ventures of questionable legality, Dotcom also happened to be a world class gamer. Just before his arrest, he actually managed to claim the throne as the world's number one Modern Warfare 3 player. Something you might not realize about hypercompetitive gaming is that the speed of the player's Internet connection can mean the difference between winning and losing that top rank. And so as he got close to reaching the top of the ranks, millionaire Kim got his henchmen to check the speed of his connection. What they found was an inexplicable lag in the time it took Dotcom's computer to hit the Xbox servers.

According to the New Zealand Herald:

It went from 30 milliseconds to 180 milliseconds — a huge increase for online gamers. The reason for the extra time emerged in a deeper inquiry, which saw a 'Trace Route' search which tracks internet signals from their origin to their destinations. When the results were compared it showed the internet signal was being diverted inside New Zealand.

In other words, somebody was spying on Dotcom, probably New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau.

The main lesson is that the software spies need to watch what you're doing typically leaves a trail. In Dotcom's case, it was a lag in his Internet connection, and the same could be true for you both on your phone and on your desktop. If things are suddenly slower than they used to be, something might be amiss. The same goes for your machine's processing power. If programs are sluggish or unresponsive, chances are there's a process running in the background that's hogging all of your RAM. A lot of the time, it's pretty easy to find and kill these processes. If you're on a PC, do the old Ctrl-Alt-Del trick, open Task Manager and switch to the Processes tab. See anything in there that's strange or new? Kill it. On a Mac, pull up Spotlight and search for "Activity Monitor." There you'll see a list of everything that's going on inside your processor. Does something look out of place? Kill it.

In reading through all those lines of code, however, you might not know exactly what kinds of processes you're looking for. Believe it or not, over-the-counter security software from companies like McAfee and Symantec are actually pretty good at hunting down these programs. You should know one thing, though. These security software companies realize that some people want to spy on other people, like a boss watching his employees to see if they're cruising Facebook instead of crunching numbers. (Often, you sign away your rights when you start a new job. Sorry!) However, those same companies publish the file names of those processes so that you can cross check them with what you find in your Activity Monitor or Task Manager.

Of course, this technique will really only root out the most elementary of cyber spies. Those who really know what they're doing can implant software on your computer that's designed to never be detected or found, and it's possible, albeit rare, that you won't be able to confirm your suspicions that you're being tracked.

The best thing to do is take precautions, especially if you're in a high-risk environment like spyware-ridden China. Use a Tor browser. Rather than using your own computer in any sensitive locations, use a Linux boot drive at an Internet cafe. And if you've got a real hard hunch that your computer is being monitored, there's always the nuclear route. It's not an ideal solution, but if you really think that somebody is watching you through your computer or smartphone, the most effective thing to do is wipe it. Delete everything and start from scratch. This still isn't completely foolproof, but it should get the job done for most people.

In thinking through all this cybersecurity stuff, you inevitably need to realize that the government is more powerful than you are and, thanks to post 9/11 anti-terrorism laws, can often spy on you completely legally. In fact, the Supreme Court just refused to hear a case that challenged a law that enabled telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon to shovel user data over to the National Security Agency without a warrant. Why? In the name of national security, of couse. If you want to start going after the legal spies like the NSA, I'd suggest you earn a law degree and make friends with the folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Just be careful who you sit next to when you're taking the bar, though. You never know who's looking over your shoulder.