What is spyware and is it OK to use it?

Spyware is a term used for many kinds of software which is designed to monitor activity on a computer. People can use spyware to turn on a webcam, reveal the keys used on a keyboard, report on browser history, and more. 

A small number of people in relationships may use spyware to monitor their partner’s online activities. A research study in 2010 found that roughly 1% of UK couples have used spyware to monitor their partners’ online activities and around 30% of us have snooped on our partner’s online conversations or browsing history. 

If you suspect your loved one of cheating, flirting or some other illicit activity, you might be wondering if such spyware works, if it’s safe to use and whether it’s legal. On the other hand, you might be wondering if someone else is monitoring your online behaviour and what you can do to protect yourself.  

Is spyware legal? 

Under the Computer Misuse Act (1990), it is a crime to gain access to someone else’s computer without their knowledge. If spyware is installed on a shared home computer then this is more of a grey area, although it’s still likely to be considered illegal as it involves surveillance of another person without their consent. It’s not clear whether evidence obtained from spyware would be admissible in court. Therefore, the use of spyware to support a divorce case is likely to backfire.

Does spyware work?

In many cases, spyware won’t work as technically intended. It’s difficult to piece together chat transcripts from keyboard logs as someone may be chatting online alongside editing a document or shopping online for example. 

It’s also difficult to monitor all applications and modern operating system security makes gaining access to computers very challenging. This is especially the case for Apple and Linux operating systems, which tend to have fewer vulnerabilities than Windows machines.

The discovery of spyware by a partner could present considerable challenges to the relationship. If the other partner is cheating this could turn one problem of trust into two problems of trust. See our ‘how to talk about what’s OK online’ for more on this.

How can I tell if my computer has spyware installed on it? If you suspect that your computer has spyware installed on it, the first thing to do is to run a proper security scan, such as Emsisoft or Kaspersky. Make sure that you are checking for spyware using a reputable source. More technical solutions will require advice from a technically competent friend or professional. But, be careful about being overcharged for ‘servicing’ if you ask for paid help; being at least a little informed can help a lot. 

In Windows you can also look in the task bar in the lower right corner: are there icons there you don’t recognise? Place a mouse over those icons to reveal their name. A quick search via a search engine such as Google should reveal the purpose of that application. 
What can I do if I think my partner has installed spyware on my computer? If you’re concerned about your partner monitoring your internet activities, you might benefit from talking to a relationship specialist. Online affairs may be evidence that a relationship isn’t working, but even suspicion of an affair is enough to be concerned about the security and stability of the relationship. That said, such affairs don’t mean that a relationship is irreparably damaged. 

If you don’t feel comfortable approaching your partner, a trained therapist can help you to discuss strategies for moving forward. See our ‘counselling for online cheating’ page for more information.

To see the full list of research references which have informed the content on this page, please see our research references section.

Page authored by Dr Bernie Hogan (University of Oxford)