How can I hide my online activities from a nosy spouse?
September 1, 2011 1:36 PM   Subscribe

My spouse is tracking my computer usage. How can I prevent them from seeing what websites I visit and which chat programs I use?

My spouse and I live together and they do have access to my computer. They work in the IT industry and know a great deal about computers. They claim to have recently begun monitoring my internet usage, specifically which websites I visit and if I am using voice communication programs such as Ventrilo and Skype. How can I prevent them from seeing what I'm doing online?

I am not here for relationship advice. Please keep the replies on topic.
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (50 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a Mac or Windows machine?
Are you familiar enough with computers to, eg; create a new user account on the machine?
Is it ok to be obvious that you are trying to hide your usage, or do you want it to look like you are not hiding anything?
posted by jacalata at 1:40 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Boot from some flavor of Linux Live CD to do your browsing and such. The only thing that can monitor what you do then is by hardware keylogging. Check to make sure there's nothing between your keyboard and the USB connector on the machine, nothing between the mic/headphone line and the jacks, etc.

Many live CD setups like Knoppix allow you to install applications and whatnot to a thumb drive, meaning you won't have to re-download Skype, etc., every time you boot from the CD.
posted by introp at 1:41 PM on September 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

Pay for one of those VPN services. Or set up OpenVPN on a colo box/Chunkhost VM/etc and tunnel everything through there.
posted by cellphone at 1:43 PM on September 1, 2011

If they have physical access to the computer, there's not much you can do. However, you can try:

1. Burn an Ubuntu live USB disk. Boot off that.

2. Only access the internet through VPN, which you can purchase very cheaply on a month to month basis.

If you need help with any of these things, we can give more details. Note that these two things do not defeat keyloggers. Physical access to a machine gives a lot of power to monitor what happens on it.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:44 PM on September 1, 2011

This is not easy to answer without knowing more about the situation.

Has your spouse given you any indication of the way in which they're monitoring your internet usage?

If it's a question of their access to your computer, that's one thing, and not easy to overcome.

But if they're watching the network activity logs then that's going to be something else entirely and not something you can really do much about short of getting an air card.

Or yeah, VPN.

At any rate: More information would be helpful.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:45 PM on September 1, 2011

Seconding a Live CD for ease of use. Be aware that if they are monitoring things at the router, this will not help. You might also want to consider doing your internet business elsewhere.
posted by cosmicbandito at 1:45 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Buy a new computer, preferably a laptop, with a fresh install of the operating system. Apply all patches and update your security software before bringing it into your house. Never let your spouse have direct physical access to it. Provision an external VPN account (powerVPN is the first hit on Google, no personal experience). Obtain some sort of 3G or 4G USB modem. Your only access should be over this device and through your external VPN.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 1:45 PM on September 1, 2011

Buy a secret laptop and only use it internet connections outside of your home. Keep the laptop secret. Spend as much time out of the house and away from creepy monitoring situations as possible.
posted by phunniemee at 1:47 PM on September 1, 2011 [32 favorites]

If you boot from a live cd/usb or use a vpn the lack of activity is going to be just as much of a giveaway as anything your husband would find in there. If you're sitting at the computer for 4 hours and there's no log, or it just shows you connected to a VPN for the whole time, obviously you're hiding something.
posted by Oktober at 1:50 PM on September 1, 2011

Oh yeah, that's a good point - another thing that would be helpful to know is whether or not it matters if they know you're hiding your activity from them. If it doesn't, that might open some doors in terms of possible solutions.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 1:53 PM on September 1, 2011

To sort of summarize the foregoing material: You don't know how they're tracking you. There are basically three ways they might be doing this:

1) Software, with some kind of spyware bug planted in your operating system. This can be defeated with a Linux LiveCD. If you use a LiveUSB stick, you can set it up with some persistent storage to let you install and customize so you're not starting from a blank slate every time. Look into Fedora LiveUSB Creator.

2) Hardware, with a bug in your keyboard or audio equipment. Like introp says, check your connections for weird bulges or extra devices. There could even be bugging hardware inside the case, say, between the connection for case-front USB ports and where they connect to the motherboard.

3) Network monitoring, at the firewall/modem/router level. Trivial to do if they've built a home network of even minimal sophistication. You can use a VPN to obscure what you're doing, but they'll know you're doing that. The only way to defeat this is to use another internet connection that they don't control, like a Starbucks connection or a 3G stick.

You can't trust any part of the hardware/software/network chain if spouse is able to touch it. You have to replace it with a chain you can trust, and guard it jealously. And know that they'll know that you're doing that.
posted by zjacreman at 1:56 PM on September 1, 2011 [7 favorites]

How about buying a 3G iPad or a netbook and 3G access? That would be very easy to physically conceal in a small bag that you carry whenever you leave the house. As other people are implying, that is probably going to be easier than security wars on a shared computer.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:56 PM on September 1, 2011 [10 favorites]

try to use the phone and its data plan as much as possible?
posted by the mad poster! at 1:57 PM on September 1, 2011

Get a smartphone with a data plan and tethering enabled. Buy a cheap laptop and connect only through the phone's tethering. Don't let the laptop out of your sight.

Don't discount the less-technical side of this, either. It would be easy to hide a camera pointed at your screen, or to record the audio in the room, etc.
posted by odinsdream at 1:58 PM on September 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

In addition to zjacreman's scenarios, another scenario is that they are doing no such thing and are just messing with your head.
posted by grouse at 2:03 PM on September 1, 2011 [6 favorites]

How about a smokescreen? Buy a second laptop, as some suggested, and do your internetting from remote locations, and set up a fake usage pattern at home to throw some sand into the gears. Like, look only at youtube videos of Vladimir Horowitz and funny kittens, search Amazon for coffee grinders, bike supplies and high-end chocolate, and have a facebook profile that identifies you as Wallace and Gromit, bus drivers.
posted by Namlit at 2:12 PM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, there's no way to do this if they're knowledgeable about computers and have physical access to the equipment or admin access to the accounts at any point.

Personally, if I was certain I lived with someone who was determined to monitor my internet access, I would not only be using a portable device with a 3G connection on an account billed such that they have no access to the information (like a pre-paid account through Virgin Mobile or something, paid for using a credit card connected to a third address, which they don't know about.) I would never let that device in the home. I'd keep it locked up somewhere where they couldn't get the key. Like a safe deposit box. Except I don't know whether you can really, truly keep a determined spouse for getting access to one of those.

Maybe this is a question a domestic abuse center would be more prepared to answer? The physical security issues, given that we can assume you will be asleep for at least 5 or 6 hours in the same place they'll be, and you won't be able to monitor their behavior during that time... I can't imagine a foolproof plan.

Oh, there is using public computers, too. FedexOffice, libraries, universities, "cyber cafes" (do those still exist in America?) and so on.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 2:14 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's most likely that your spouse isn't monitoring you at all, and is just bragging about it to keep you "in line." However, you're obviously in a situation where you have to assume the worst.

In this case, with a skilled professional who has full access to the machine and the network, there is no foolproof way to guarantee your privacy 100%. Worse, it will be obvious that you are making an attempt to circumvent any measures, which will only cause your spouse to get more angry.

The first thing you should do is clear your information. RAINN has a great page with step-by-step information on how to do this.

Next, you need to find a safe way to work online. Assume that anything you do on your home computer is being monitored by your spouse. If you can do stuff at work or at a library, that's great.

I would recommend a Boost Mobile phone, because they have cheap rates on prepaid/no contract data plans for smartphones, which are basically just pocket-sized computers. You will probably need to keep it a secret from your spouse for as long as possible, to prevent your spouse from accessing the phone's records, too.

Meanwhile, continue to use your home computer as you usually would on any other day. Don't suddenly stop using it, or your spouse may get suspicious.

Once you have your own phone/computer, you can use it to contact RAINN if you need more help. And I wish you all the luck in the world.
posted by ErikaB at 2:16 PM on September 1, 2011 [14 favorites]

Apologies - it's Virgin Mobile I'm thinking of, not Boost. Virgin Mobile has a ton of great Android phones.
posted by ErikaB at 2:17 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're trying to hide activity on a network they control, you can't. If you still want to try, add all of this on top of obtaining a new laptop and a connection that they do not control: Protecting a Laptop from Simple and Sophisticated Attacks.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:18 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

You cannot trust the network connection as that is where the snooping could be happening so you cannot surf at home unless you are using some other internet connection (cellphone, neighbor, etc)

You cannot trust the computer as there could be a physical key logger attached to the keyboard REGARDLESS of if you boot into another OS.

You cannot trust any computer/phone/new user on the computer/laptop/new OS if he has access to it behind your back.

Surf elsewhere, or get a cellphone, or get a cellphone with tethering and a laptop. Keep all the hardware hidden from him or you'll be SOL again.
posted by pwb503 at 2:18 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

if you have the money, pick up a cheap laptop (used is fine) or netbook or ipod touch or something and go use wireless access points outside of your home. (library, coffee shop, mcdonalds, etc)
posted by rmd1023 at 2:36 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Adding to the suggestion of the 3G iPad, you can do the wifi iPad and get a VPN service. I use and recommend HideMyAss as they and their servers are not located in the States and are subject to different laws regarding logs and required disclosure (subpoenas, etc). May come in handy should the spouse initiate some legal actions against you.

Do you know the concept of VPN? Your computer connects through the router, through the modem and to a server provided by your VPN service. All traffic between the two end points in the previous sentence are encrypted and cannot be sniffed or foiled by a man-in-the-middle attack. As far as the world Internet knows, YOU ARE the VPN server. Without the VPN, the modem and router you connect through see everything you do.

Also, without jailbreaking the iPad, it would be hard to do anything extra even with physical access. If you enable the passcode on unlock option, the files can be encrypted even. So having physical access to the computer the iPad syncs with wouldn't be helpful either. But I would avoid syncing in this case.

Routers can keep logs of ever site visited. It's trivial to set up for anyone that can use Google and follow directions. Your admin spouse would have no issue.
posted by phritosan at 2:36 PM on September 1, 2011

How can I prevent them from seeing what websites I visit and which chat programs I use?

If your spouse is quite knowledgeable about computers and has unfettered physical access to the computer you are using the short answer is; you can't prevent him from seeing which websites you visit.
posted by Justinian at 2:42 PM on September 1, 2011

Your spouse is a "they"?.

I'd go with the non technical route. Try this.

"Hello. Why are you monitoring my internet usage. What have I done to upset you that has resulted in this situation." Go from there really

Failing that, browse away. Dont hide anything. Whats he going to find out? Maybe do some googling for really really good divorce lawyers.
posted by daveyt at 2:49 PM on September 1, 2011 [14 favorites]

If your spouse told you that he or she is monitoring your computer, I can just about guarantee you that he or she isn't. Telling you defeats the entire purpose of the monitoring.
posted by Maisie at 2:54 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hah, the first thing that came to mind is that the OP is the one who wants to find weaknesses in their own monitoring plans, or is an author, or some such.

Use Google Chrome in incognito mode. Skype is encrypted, so while someone might be able to tell that you're using it, they won't know to whom or what you're saying.
posted by rhizome at 2:58 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is one of those glass shard questions. The easiest way to get around your spouse's surveillance is to remove your spouse from the picture, sorry.
posted by milk white peacock at 3:02 PM on September 1, 2011 [12 favorites]

Doesn't liveCD + tor defeat network-level monitoring similar to a VPN? I guess it's obvious you're doing it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:05 PM on September 1, 2011

Oftentimes, another open Wifi network is in range. You might try logging into visible networks. If you find one you can browse with, your spouse might not be able to see the logs.
posted by rikschell at 3:07 PM on September 1, 2011

For everyone breaking out the "leave them!" maybe they're doing that and want to be able to use the internet while preparing. Maybe they've substituted in "spouse" for some other person / institution so that it's not obvious if Eve happens to also read askme.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:08 PM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

I will try REALLY HARD to ignore the relationship aspect of this1, and offer the following advice:

1. If your spouse controls the computer, you are doomed.
2. If your spouse controls the network, you are doomed.
3. If your spouse controls the router, you are doomed.

Doomed not because there aren't workarounds, but because unless you have a thorough understanding of the technologies, you'll never know for sure whether you're successful at evading the you'll be susceptable to stress and worry, whether you're being monitored or not.

So, the only solution is an end-to-end one, that you control entirely. Were I in your shoes1, here's what I'd do:

1. Buy a cell phone on a separate plan under my own name from T-Mobile, an Android smart phone that supports using the phone as a wireless hotspot (I have a G2, and it does this);

2. Buy a computer of my own, a small netbook that can do all the things I need it to do, and can be easily hidden from prying eyes and locked in a safe or other secure location easily;

3. Set up the hotspot on my phone with a crazy password that nobody will be able to guess (like "476faskfUYjdf&*13!klsjdf;DTMFA789! ! ! 42") and WPA (NOT WEP, for the love of god, NOT WEP, it is easy to crack!)

4. Set up my computer with a crazy password along the same lines, something that can be remembered without writing it down, but also something that is not guessable (like "moron72!# bisonDIALect")

5. Use that computer with that hotspot for all my needs, shut down the hotspot when I'm not using it, make sure my phone is also passcode-protected and your spouse doesn't know about it, don't use the phone for any other purpose, and change the WPA (NOT WEP!) password every week or so.

Not to be flip, but it is the only way to be sure.

1for my own moral compass to remain intact, I am assuming you are in an abusive relationship that you cannot immediately escape, that you need the computer to help enable your escape, and your spouse is attempting to thwart this effort. At the same time, for your sake, I hope this is not true, and you're just trying to hide your pornography habit.
posted by davejay at 3:25 PM on September 1, 2011 [10 favorites]

Oh, and don't stop using the computer at home. Just stop using it for the things you don't want your spouse to know about. Kind of obvious, but if you stop using the computer totally, your spouse will notice if they're actually monitoring.
posted by davejay at 3:30 PM on September 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Assuming there is a keyboard logger, is there software that the OP could download to find that out?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:55 PM on September 1, 2011

Speaking as someone with some expertise in this area, if I chose to monitor you the only thing you could do to stop me would be to not surf on any piece of equipment I have access to and never in the house or any place else I have the ability to place video surveillance equipment.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:10 PM on September 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

Also, before going into a deletion-frenzy, consider that they may be keeping track of what is deleted. There's no surer way to figure out what someone has been up to than seeing what they've been shredding the night before.

I'd second davejay's suggestion of a cheap android phone with data plan (pay in cash). metroPCS has one that's reasonably cheap. Virgin has some as well.

Make sure to:
1) Lock the phone with a good 8+ digit passcode. DO NOT use a swipe pattern, since the grease on your hands makes it easy to see what the swipe pattern is.
2) Set the timeout for screen lock to 1 min.
3) Turn off wireless and leave it off, so it doesn't start browsing via the home router, which will be visible.
4) Don't use/remove any SDcard in the phone as it can be removed and read easily.
5) Only browse your private sites on the phone, don't stop browsing regular sites on the computer.

You can't detect good hardware keyboard loggers or network taps. They just siphon the data off as it goes from the input to output. The best you can hope for is to fill up the buffer with a bunch of crap, but storage is so cheap that may be difficult with 1Gb of keyboard storage.
posted by benzenedream at 4:10 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd go completely dark on the internet at home.

It will drive them nuts.

Do your surfing at work.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:28 PM on September 1, 2011

I'd go completely dark on the internet at home.

Oh, word, if you want to escalate the psychological warfare it's all about this move. And when the spouse asks you about it, feign total ignorance. "Of course I've been using the computer at home. I was on there half an hour ago."
posted by milk white peacock at 4:52 PM on September 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

Easiest path:
Empty your cache and browsing history, spend one completely boring day on the computer going to very few sites (for instance, like me and most days on Metafilter), and then ask your spouse to prove it by telling you what you did on the computer. It could just be a bluff, after all.

Iffy path:
Use computer but stop going to chat rooms and/or ventrilo or skype (by the way, Google chat can be accessed through gmail, and Google is so huge it might come across as more innocent than a dedicated chat room or VOIP server).

Fail-proof path:
Don't use the computer.
Leave the spouse.
posted by misha at 5:08 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

If your home router is controlled by your spouse you could purchase a second router that you plug your internet connection and computer into only while you're using it. After you're finished just unplug your router and restore the original connections.

If you do this along with disabling hardware keyloggers and using a live cd as others have suggested then you just might have a shot at getting your surfing done completely undetected.
posted by talkingmuffin at 5:53 PM on September 1, 2011

If an attacker has physical access to a machine, that machine should be considered compromised. There is no reliable way to hide your activity on a machine that your spouse has physical access to.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:33 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

> Buy a secret laptop and only use it internet connections outside of your home.

phunniemee's right.

Since taking security countermeasures with your existing system is likely to prove time-consuming and expensive (and ultimately unreliable) anyway...

yeah, just get a used netbook off of Craigslist for $150.

Additionally, of course, set up new accounts for whatever services you're using to communicate with people, and obviously, don't ever access your new accounts from the home system.
posted by darth_tedious at 6:53 PM on September 1, 2011

In a household where one spouse is monitoring the other's computer usage against their will, and the other spouse is attempting to do things on the computer that they don't want their spouse to see...

... the computers are not the problem.

That being said, don't use your computer at home. That's the only way to achieve your stated goal.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:24 PM on September 1, 2011

Using something like an Ubuntu live disk (especially if you're booting from a thumb drive!) is probably your best bet. The problem is that you're logging off of your computer to restart using the live disk. Eventually, your spouse may realize you're on the computer a lot and yet nothing is changing. No web history, etc. And that will only increase suspicion.
posted by 2oh1 at 7:30 PM on September 1, 2011

Let's make this clear: using a Live CD will only prevent SOME of this "spying", depending on which programs you use, and what this monitoring really involves. It would in no way prevent an IT person from being able to do the things that you listed your SO doing.

This is because it is very simple for someone to set up monitoring at the router/network level where they monitor the data being sent over the wire. So then your solution, in combination with using a Live CD, would be to be connected to the internet without a router in between your computer and the modem. You could use a switch, but if someone is eager enough, they can view your internet traffic that way as well - so the most ideal solution is to connect your computer directly to the modem and use a Live CD. Not practical IMO.

The above notes on VPN's are also accurate, doing so you would be able to use a router and any existing operating system. This is a practical solution.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 9:40 PM on September 1, 2011

I would boot from a ubuntu CD, and use a tethered mobile or 3G mobile internet thing for connectivity.
posted by the noob at 10:56 PM on September 1, 2011

To drive home the point that LiveCDs, external net cards, and VPN are useless when the spouse has access to the hardware, here are a few easy-to-purchase hardware loggers (no endorsement, these are just some easily googleable items):

USB wireless keylogger that sends emails of all keystrokes (2 Gb of storage, 2 billion keystrokes)
Video screenloggers to take screenshots of all video activity (2Gb storage, ~ 20,000 screenshots @ 100k each)
KeyGrabber keybord module - keylogger that you can easily insert inside an existing keyboard. Good luck detecting this one.

If somebody has access to the hardware, you are screwed. Don't fool around with half-measures. Buy your own hardware or do your own surfing at work/the library as you look for a divorce lawyer.
posted by benzenedream at 11:20 PM on September 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

The problem with the iPad suggestions (and perhaps some other similar solutions) is that AFAIK, there is no way to encrypt the information on the iPad itself. If the device were found, the spouse would have full access to Anonymous' information.

If you want to go the separate device route (which is probably better depending on your situation), you try a cheap Windows netbook. Encrypt the entire harddrive ("full disk encryption") with TrueCrypt, and use a difficult password that is not guessable by the spouse. This will protect all the information on it in case it is found by the spouse.

1. Do NOT use this device on the WiFi router that your spouse has set up; they would know it is connected to the router, and thus know its existence. Buy a 3G device and plan from a cellphone company.

2. Do NOT surf without VPN. I believe 3G packets are insecure, for someone who is knowledgeable.

3. Do NOT sleep the device. Shut it down or hibernate every time. Sleeping can leave sensitive information in RAM (see the recent problem with Macs).

4. Do NOT stop surfing on the primary computer, if it is important that your spouse NOT find out you have a second device. As others have pointed out, ceasing your surfing will make the spouse suspicious.

5. Do NOT allow your spouse to every get access to the device. Physical access to a device means it is compromised. With a netbook, you get the benefit of it being difficult to take apart to add eavesdropping equipment (a macbook air would be even more difficult), but still not impossible.

6. Do NOT use the device where the spouse may have placed more traditional surveillance equipment like hidden cameras or microphones.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:22 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

A lot of public libraries have internet access and terminals you can use. I imagine they'd be a lot easier & cheaper than trying to keep a laptop safe and much harder for your husband to put a trace of any sort on. You can switch up which branch you go to, terminal you use and use a memory stick to carry any files you want to access. They are seething cesspits of viruses though so be careful.

Or on second thoughts you could always add a virus or 2 to his computer, you know for shits and giggles and heck if he's busy trying to track them down he might be too busy to keep such a close eye on you.
posted by wwax at 6:26 AM on September 2, 2011

Having considered all of the above advice I'd say the safest route is simply not to use a computer at home. Without knowing the range of this person's expertise it's impossible to say the point at which they'd give up trying to snoop on you.

But a caveat: Since you don't know if they've installed a keylogger or not, I'd also recommend that you change your password on every site you use, and you do this from a non-home computer. If you use gmail, for example, using it somewhere else besides home won't matter if your spouse knows your password.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:58 AM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

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