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How Do Keyloggers Work? & What are Some Ways to Safeguard Against Keyloggers?

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

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Keylogger Definition

Keyloggers are digital surveillance tools which can reveal every touch, click, or download action performed by a user. In simple terms, keyloggers act as a monitoring software which silently runs in the background and is developed to record the keystrokes of any user.

Keyloggers types - hardware keyloggers and software keyloggers.

Hardware keyloggers

Hardware keyloggers are USB devices which are used to intercept and record keystrokes. A device is supposed to be connected to the target computer and therefore requires physical access to the system. It is one of the challenges of hardware keyloggers. However, a few of the key benefits of such keyloggers are that they are completely undetectable by security scanners or anti-virus software and require no additional installation software or drivers.

Software keyloggers

Like hardware keyloggers, software keyloggers are used to remotely intercept or access locally stored data. These are the most common type of keyloggers; however, they require installation of specific software on the target system. Software keyloggers are also commonly installed when users fall prey to phishing attacks or unknowingly download a malicious file or an application.

How to detect keyloggers?

Keyloggers hamper the smooth functioning of computers in the same way as other malware. Some signs which can help detect keyloggers are:

  • Slower system performance

  • Slower web browsing

  • Delay or lag in response to regular keystrokes of mouse or keyboard

Best practices for removing keyloggers

Some of the operating protocols to help avoid or remove keyloggers are as follow:

  • Refrain from opening unknown attachments

  • Use a comprehensive security solution or anti-virus software that can detect keyloggers

  • Use a strong password policy

  • Use two-step verification when storing passwords online

  • Look for any unfamiliar tasks running in the task manager list

  • Consider using virtual onscreen keyboards

  • Consider clearing temp files

Uses of keyloggers

Keyloggers are often interpreted as malware, however, that is not true in all situations. For instance, organizations or corporations use keyloggers to troubleshoot technical issues and choose keyloggers to monitor their employees for ensuring productivity. Similarly, parents can use keyloggers to monitor their children’s internet usage patterns and activities.

Suspicious people are inclined towards using keyloggers to spy on their partners. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies use keyloggers for monitoring and surveillance purposes.

Is the usage of keyloggers legal?

As per federal laws, unauthorized access to another person’s personal or financial information is illegal. Any flavor of keylogger when used to retrieve credit card, and PAN card details, or passwords is a punishable offense.

How do keyloggers work?

Mentioned below are the screenshots of a case study conducted on a user’s computer for knowledge gathering purpose. For this case study an open-source software known as Spyrix was used.

Software keylogger execution flowchart
Software keylogger execution flowchart

The figure depicts steps for installing, executing, and using a keylogger software. Before downloading and using any keylogger, it is essential to disable the anti-virus and/or Windows firewall. An active anti-virus will block & blacklist the IP address from where the user is downloading the software and will register it as a malicious IP. Furthermore, users should use a valid email address while registering the software. This email-id will not just act as a login credential, but the link of any report(s) will also be sent to the registered id.

Software settings for a typical Keylogger
Software settings for a typical Keylogger

The figure mentions the different type of settings available in a typical software keylogger. These settings can be used to configure which logging tasks the software will perform and manipulate certain aspects of how the software will perform those tasks. In this case two settings are used, however, there are numerous other tasks that the software can perform such as recording sound, capturing snapshots through the webcam, downloading video recording, and storing browser history to name a few.

Activity log snapshot
Activity log snapshot

The figure above includes a pie chart representation of the users activity log. As highlighted in the figure, “user statistic” includes all the details about activities performed and the time spent on each activity. For instance, as mentioned in the figure, user “ruda4” spent 2 minutes on a system component and 1 minute on the paint application.

Final activity & event log report by a keylogger
Final activity & event log report by a keylogger

The figure above is an image from the final report. This is a downloadable file and the link for it is sent to the registered email-id. As shown in the figure, the report includes the victim’s time and date details, screenshot of activity logs, and the location of images stored in the local machine.

Recent cases of keyloggers attack

  • In February 2021, countries such as Latvia, Turkey, and Italy witnessed the re-emergence of the infamous MassLogger malware in the form of a new variant. This variant is designed to extract credentials from sources such as instant messengers, Google Chrome, and Microsoft Outlook. The attackers were primarily targeting Windows systems. Users received e-mails with authentic looking subject lines but included malicious RAR files with unclear JavaScript code. These files were further used to start the infectious chain.

  • In August 2020, a malicious spam email campaign was observed which distributed MassLogger malware. It had the ability to retrieve clipboard and keystrokes data and was able to capture screenshots of user credentials from Outlook, Firefox, Telegram, Thunderbird, Chrome, and FileZilla among others. Additionally, this malware could be spread using USBs and would further create copies of code in files.

In Conclusion

Keyloggers are commonly referred to as malware, however, they can be used ethically as well. In fact, government agencies, parents, and corporate organization do use keyloggers because of some of their benefits. However, keyloggers do have a dark side to them. Hackers use them for demanding ransoms or for retrieving personal and financial information, and regular people may use them to spy on each other. Nevertheless, effective usage of anti-virus, updating software applications, avoiding installation of unverified free software, and being aware about phishing attacks are some of the measures which can significantly reduce the risk of falling prey to such cyber-attacks.

Ruda Barar
  • LinkedIn

EC-Council CEH Certified | ECSA Trained | Master of Technology (M.Tech) in Information Security | ISO/IEC 27001 - Information Security Foundation

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