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Is my roommate spying on my internet/computer use?
July 12, 2011 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Is my roommate spying on me via our shared wireless router? Also, is he sneaking on my general computer use?

A while back my roommate insisted on getting a new wireless router. I had no idea why but later I Googled the model number of the new one and found it has a way of keeping logs on your browsing history -- apparently something only a few routers are capable of.

Also, I have noticed that whenever we are both online, I get these random screen flashes. I spend a lot of time online at home and work and never, ever get that type of flash. Also, it never happens when he's not in the apartment. It has me thinking that he is doing screen grabs somehow.

I know it's mostly circumstantial but I have some motive too. He is the type of person who likes to collect information about everyone. He vacuums up info and keeps a (mental) file on everyone so that he can use it at some point. That much I know for a fact. Also, I know he has gone to lengths to find out stuff about me on other occasions.

Is there any way I can verify whether he is tracking my activity or has installed spyware on my machine?

Thank you all.
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Every router I've owned could do tracking logs, so that may not have been the only reason for him wanting a new router.

Get the admin password from him, login to the router setup, and see if tracking is enabled.
posted by hwyengr at 2:02 PM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think you have no more reason to suspect your roommate than you do to suspect a random virus or trojan, if that's what is going on and someone is indeed taking screenshots.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:06 PM on July 12, 2011


Start up your computer in safe mode and run 'msconfig' from the start menu. Look for anything in the 'startup' or 'services' tab (check the "hide microsoft services" checkbox here) that seems suspicious and uncheck it. You can uncheck as many things in startup as you'd like, as you can always re-enable them in safe mode later.

It's also possible that you might have a trojan on your PC regardless of whether your roomate was involved or not. Check out Deezil's profile for a good starting point on trojan detection and removal. Just because you have Anti-Virus does not not mean you're 100% protected. In fact, for most new variants of malware you have very little protection unless your main account is set to User privileges instead of Administrator. I have some tips in my profile that could help with that scenario.

Who does the router belong to? If it is your router and you're the primary billing contact for the apartment and internet connection...you have every right to lock him out of the router entirely by setting a new password on it.

Also, since he's on your network he can also "sniff" out packets...so be sure that any private web browsing you do is through https:// or even better yet, go through a VPN (virtual private network) like VyperVPN
posted by samsara at 2:07 PM on July 12, 2011 [11 favorites]


You can use something like rkill.exe to see if anything odd is running on your computer, it may find trojans or other junk. Or, get a trusted friend that knows about computers to take a look at stuff -there are lots of us out there!

Regardless of the outcome there, get a new roommate. This one seems shady, high-tech or low-tech.
posted by kellyblah at 2:09 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Practically all routers have some log-keeping capability. All the other stuff is bothersome. Let's take it as read that he's making some attempt to spy on you.

Depending on your personality, I might suggest, in order of descending wisdom and practicality:

- GET A NEW ROOMMATE! I mean, sheesh...

- got a tech-savvy friend who can look through your computer, registry (if it's windows), etc. for gremlins? (on preview; you're getting some good advice there. A VPN would solve a lot of practical problems going forward. And yes, some outside party could be keylogging or doing screengrabs, so be certain it's him...)

- change any and all passwords on your banking accounts, etc., from a work computer if at all possible.

- Open a word doc, or whatever, and keep some visible part of your screen open with STOP SPYING ON ME, DOUG*

- Begin some kind of false trail/canary trap kind of activity. Do activities on your home computer which would lead him down some kind of garden path. This could be incredibly involved, but if I was morally certain someone I was sharing living quarters with was spying on me, I'd set something up which made him afraid to keep living with me.

- I'd be tempted to find and keep open the vilest, filthiest, nastiest stuff I could legally access on the interwebz and have it there for him to see when he does screengrabs, if that's really what he's doing. The downside would be that it's there for you to see too, and/or that actual friends could form wrong impressions of you if they somehow saw this stuff.

I realize the last two are not necessarily real smart in their most extreme possibilities, but I probably would just have to do something which kept him up at night if in fact he was spying on me. As a bonus, it might achieve point #1. Please obey all local and federal laws, YMMV, Member FDIC, IANAL.



*assuming his name is Doug.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:11 PM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


well, if you did it right, and you turned out to be wrong, the good part is that he'd never know.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:16 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


You should always assume that the information you send and receive from unencrypted web sites is visible to anyone who can connect to your network. You don't need a special router to capture that information; that's just the way networking works. If your roommate were really interested in observing your internet usage without your knowledge, he wouldn't need a router with logging capabilities to do so.

Furthermore, there's no reason that a program that takes screenshots would cause your screen to "flash." It's not a technical necessity for such a program to cause any visible indication of its activity in any way. The screen flashing you're observing is almost certainly unrelated to your roommate's behavior.
posted by aparrish at 2:22 PM on July 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


Not going to go into detail (memail me if you want to talk about it), but this is a thing that does happen sometimes and worrying about it does not necessarily represent paranoia or a need for therapy on the part of the OP. It's happened to me and it's tremendously (and surprisingly) emotionally jarring. If you have a reasonable reason to believe that this is possible, you should definitely follow the advice in this thread.

I'll say, though, that getting weird stuff installed on your computer is a sort of bizarrely invasive way for a nosey roommate to do this. If he controls the router (and even if not - on a wireless node, you can usually see all the traffic from all other people on the same node, we just assume other people aren't looking at it most of the time), he gets everything that goes in and out of your computer that's not HTTPS, so switching to a full time VPN seems to me to be the most prudent immediate step to take, followed by a software purge on your machine to clear keyloggers or some weird screengrab system. That said, just because he owns the router doesn't mean he has any way to inject that stuff on your computer that he wouldn't have had previously by just using your computer when you're not around. So the causal bits of the story don't seem to hang together for me (eg new router -> screen flashes). If he wanted to track your traffic, he could do that before or after a new router purchase, and the same goes for installing spyware on your machine. Still, if you're getting genuinely weird vibes, I would encourage you to do something about it.
posted by heresiarch at 2:29 PM on July 12, 2011


Also, I have noticed that whenever we are both online, I get these random screen flashes. I spend a lot of time online at home and work and never, ever get that type of flash. Also, it never happens when he's not in the apartment. It has me thinking that he is doing screen grabs somehow.

Have you tried disconnecting from the wireless and seeing if the flashes happen still? If they do, is it at certain exact intervals (i.e., every 30 seconds, 5 minutes, etc)? It's not a definite clue, since it wouldn't be too difficult to set up a randomly-timed screenshot program, but if it is something that only happens online.

He is the type of person who likes to collect information about everyone. He vacuums up info and keeps a (mental) file on everyone so that he can use it at some point. That much I know for a fact. Also, I know he has gone to lengths to find out stuff about me on other occasions.

This is alarm-bell type behavior. Either he has mental problems, or he's actually planning some sort of harm with whatever he is trying to dig up. In any event, there's no reason for you to continue to be his roommate. Get out as soon as possible, because there's no way this is going to end well. I don't necessarily mean that in a killer-is-inside-the-house way, but (IANAD) at best it sounds like he's OCD/autistic spectrum with very poor social comprehension.
posted by zombieflanders at 2:32 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


1. Change your passwords on everything.
2. Get a VPN account.
3. Move.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:39 PM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


As an IT professional, the router is the last way I'd snoop on you - too tedious. I'd just put a screen-sharing support application on your computer. Some of them are pretty hide-able, I used to use a VNC client that could be configured to run under the average user's radar.

I'm just saying the router probably doesn't have much to do with it. Maybe he is snooping on you, maybe he's not. If it's something running on your computer, which is probably is, you can probably find it if you're fairly tech savvy or know someone else who is.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:44 PM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is one of those questions where the nominal question seems to be not the largest problem here.

You have a serious trust problem with your room-mate. You either are suffering from paranoid thinking patterns and need to see a therapist or your roommate is a sociopath and you need to move, but regardless of whether or not your room-mate is spying on you, you're in an untenable situation that needs to change.
posted by empath at 2:48 PM on July 12, 2011 [13 favorites]


Use tools from sysinternals to see what's running.
Use a VPN.
Hack the router (not hard) by hard-resetting the password, then look to see if there are logs.
Make sure file & printer sharing is turned off on your computer/network connection.
Rename the administrator account, and reset its password.
disable the guest account
enable the windows firewall.
Use Microsoft's free antivirus program.
Make sure Remote Desktop is locked down.
Change your passwords, and use secure passwords, with letters, numbers and a couple of non-alpha-numeric characters, like !@#$%. no less than 10 characters. It's not that hard to type a longer, more secure password.

If you are sufficiently geeky, do some more research on Windows Desktop Security, if not, find a geeky friend who will work for beer. Even if roomie isn't hacking your pc, good security is a good idea.

Lots of people are a little more nosy than they should be, esp. certain computer-geeky guys I've known. It's not always really nefarious. However, it's a violation of your privacy. I'd consider making some comments about privacy, how you value it, and how you'd be pissed of it was violated. Facebook is notoriously not respectful of privacy, so might be a good discussion point.
posted by theora55 at 3:20 PM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


This passage in your original post makes me wonder:

He is the type of person who likes to collect information about everyone. He vacuums up info and keeps a (mental) file on everyone so that he can use it at some point. That much I know for a fact. Also, I know he has gone to lengths to find out stuff about me on other occasions.

Another way to look at this: "He is the type of person who is curious about other people. He is interested in them and pays attention to their stories, and when he sees them again, he follows up on what they said the last time. He has tried to befriend me by showing interest in my past, my hobbies, my work, etc."

Honestly, some people are just curious extroverts without an ulterior motive. Maybe your roommate is a one-man Stasi operation, but it's hard for strangers on the Internet to figure that out. Clearly you don't trust him, but maybe you should check with a mutual acquaintance about whether your concerns seem valid.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:31 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Furthermore, there's no reason that a program that takes screenshots would cause your screen to "flash." It's not a technical necessity for such a program to cause any visible indication of its activity in any way. The screen flashing you're observing is almost certainly unrelated to your roommate's behavior.

I don't have anything to say about the rest of it, but ditto this. It would be abysmally poor snooping hardware/software that would let the person being observed know in this manner.
posted by juv3nal at 4:20 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I forgot to mention one very simple thing to try that might bring some piece of mind. If you suspect he's actively viewing your desktop remotely, use something like IPSEC or Windows Firewall to block your entire subnet (except for your gateway). This won't prevent on the wire packet sniffing, but will actively "blackhole" any directed traffic (eg. file sharing, desktop viewing, ftp, etc) from anyone on your network. Make this rule block traffic both ways so nothing initiated from your PC reaches others on your subnet either...just allow the gateway.

Furthermore, there's no reason that a program that takes screenshots would cause your screen to "flash."

VNC, and other "remote viewing" programs will cause this to happen in many scenarios and especially with Windows XP. So I wouldn't dismiss the screen flashing as being overly paranoid. I would however not jump to conclusions and accuse the roomate until you have solid proof..the presence of VNC, rtools, or similar software would help build that case. If you can distract him to leave his PC when your screen flashes and quickly do a "netstat -a > c:\test.txt" in your command prompt...you can close that prompt and disconnect from the network quickly to review test.txt to see if it contains connections from his IP.

But yes, the screen flickering can be caused by other things as well and it's just a strange coincidence when you're both on your PCs. (eg. driver problems...certain apps or addins that access the video's hardware acceleration...or hardware problems with the video card or monitor). Just err on the side of caution and make sure you don't accuse your roomate prematurely...as it would be embarrasing to do so and find out that the spying was not taking place.

If you feel comfortable installing a program that will trigger with suspicious connections, try a free trial of a firewall solution such as ZoneAlarm. It would be somewhat easier than configuring the built in Windows Firewall (and also takes any tampering that may have happened with the built-in firewall out of the equation)
posted by samsara at 4:34 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


VNC, and other "remote viewing" programs will cause this to happen in many scenarios and especially with Windows XP.

It's possible, I guess, but VNC isn't designed specifically for surreptitious snooping. For instance, it should be trivial to determine if the VNC server is running on your machine which would be a bigger warning sign than a flashing screen.
posted by juv3nal at 5:41 PM on July 12, 2011


True...if the suspicion is there though its definitely worth taking a look before ruling it out. Even if it is not the roomate, vnc based backdoors have existed in the wild where hijackers "check in" remotely to see if a PC is being used before setting up a more elaborate hijack. Not saying its the case here...as I haven't seen this happen in the workplace in over 5 years...but we did notice the "flicker" when the VNC driver kicked in. To the OP: Once something that obvious is ruled out, work your way from other possible software issues towards driver and the hardware itself. I'd recommend taking the PC to a professional or doing a full wipe/reload if still unsure...then password protect your system and physically lock him out from having access to your room/PC. You can do all of this without directly confronting him or eluding that you suspect his actions (in the event you're wrong about the spying). Paranoia is an easy trap when you are having trouble trusting someone....but get your security situation in order to help allieviate the negative feelings you're having about him.
posted by samsara at 8:05 PM on July 12, 2011


This odd thing happened in my old living situation where a roommate's boyfriend would come over and hop on the wireless, which itself was no big deal, but he'd hang around even when she wasn't there.

Months later, I get a very upset call from said roommate because after she's moved out and into a house with him, she's been sneaking around his porn folders, found one called favorites, and it has -among other things- lots of graphic pictures of me and a few friends we had in the same apartment complex.

She confronted him and he said he'd just done it all through the wireless and into computers even when the files there weren't shared.

This didn't end well for anyone.
posted by nile_red at 9:38 PM on July 12, 2011


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