You may have heard of the terms “keylogger” and “spyware” on social media or the news. Both are types of malicious software that threat actors can deploy to snoop on you or copy your data. But they’re not necessarily the same.
So, what is the difference between a keylogger and spyware in the world of computer viruses and malware? Well, spyware, like the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group’s Pegasus, is malware that may read your texts, social media messages, emails, track your movements, and copy or take pictures of you. Spyware is also a catchall term for any prying malware, like keyloggers, stalkerware, and certain kinds of adware.
What is a keylogger?
A keylogger is a sneaky type of spyware that’s as devious as it is uncomplicated. At its core, a keylogger logs all the keys you type on your desktop or laptop’s keyboard. Some keyloggers have more advanced functions, like taking screenshots. Here are some typical keylogger customers:
- Hackers: With a keylogger, a hacker can read your passwords, usernames, credit card numbers, emails, and the content of your documents.
- Corporate spies: The sneaky tools are an effective way for corporate spies to steal intellectual property.
- Employers: Many organizations secretly install keyloggers on company systems to keep an eye on staff and prevent data theft.
- IT teams: Keyloggers are a helpful tool for IT teams in investigating bugs, crashes, and isolating user errors.
- Romantic partners: Suspicious spouses, ex-lovers, abusers, predators, and even stalkers can use keyloggers to monitor their targets.
- Parents: Controversially, some parents use keyloggers to keep an eye on their kids.
Two types of keyloggers
There are two main types of keyloggers for computers like desktops and laptops. Software keyloggers are applications that log keystrokes, while hardware keyloggers are physical pieces of hardware. Here is how hackers deploy them:
The most common infection vector for software keyloggers is spear-phishing attacks. These are fake emails, text messages, and social media messages that trick their targets into installing keyloggers. Trojan horses, like malicious web browsers or fake security software, can also install keyloggers.
Keyboards, USB drives, USB cables, routers, and other small devices can have keyloggers built into them. PS/2 devices that fit between a keyboard cable and a computer’s port can also function as keyloggers. Older keyloggers were more challenging for threat actors to deploy and retrieve because they did not have network capabilities, but newer keyloggers can transmit data wirelessly.
Symptoms of a keylogger attack
Keyloggers usually display very few symptoms, so it’s hard to detect them. A keylogger may cause slowdowns and crashes. You may also see unknown software on your computer’s program list or in Windows Task Manager. Some keyloggers can cause popups to appear too. Of course, you may be the victim of a keylogger attack if your confidential data leaks.
How to detect a keylogger
To detect a hardware keylogger, follow your keyboard’s cable to your computer and check if there’s a device plugged between the motherboard and the cable. Look for other mysterious devices as they could be keyloggers too. To detect software keyloggers on your computer or mobile device, try using well-reviewed anti-malware software or any antivirus that uses artificial intelligence to find threatening behavior in malicious software. Prevent keylogger attacks by learning how social engineering works to trick you into installing malware.