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A guide to monitoring someone else’s computer

Is one of your employees embezzling, or stealing company secrets? Is your at-risk teen making plans to meet an inappropriate online friend face-to-face? Quite possibly the only way you'll be sure is to engage in a little old-fashioned spying. Assuming you've weighed up the pros and cons – and you should do so very carefully – if you decide that spying is the only way, consider the following suggestions.

Hands-on spying

For a full-scale hands-on spying session, you'll need access to the victim's user account. In the best case scenario you simply walk up to the target computer and find that the victim has left without logging off. Otherwise, try guessing the account password; too many people use weak, easily guessed passwords. As a last resort, see if you can log in to the Administrator account, or another account with Administrator privileges. If you succeed, you can change or remove the victim's password, though of course this will leave evidence of your chicanery.

If the browser is open, that's an added bonus. Take note of any and all open websites, and use the back button to check other recent sites. If the browser wasn't open you can still review browsing history to see just what the victim was doing online.

You may well be able to log in to the victim's web-based email accounts. Just navigate to the site and enter the address – the browser may well fill in the password for you, if the victim hasn't disabled that feature. Launch any email client applications you find. Most users choose to let the email client remember their login credentials, rather than having to enter a password every time they launch the client.

Worried that your child may be instant messaging inappropriately? Try launching the IM client; chances are good it's configured to log in automatically. Now you can view the buddy list and review chat histories.

Click Start, click Run, and click the down-arrow on the end of the data-entry box to get a list of recently-launched programs. Choose Recent Documents from the start menu to see recently opened documents. Launch any word processors, spreadsheets, or other document editing tools and check their internal lists of recent documents. Copy any relevant docs to a USB stick for later perusal.

When you're done, do your best to hide any evidence of your activities. If you lucked into a logged-in system, leave the same apps running as you found them. Delete your own activities from the browser's history and leave it open on the same page as when you started. Then get out of there!

Spy programs

Sitting in the victim's chair poking around at files is one way to gain information; installing a spy program is another. You'll still need access to an Administrator level account on the target PC, but only for long enough to install the software.

Spy programs exist at one end of the parental control spectrum; the same programs can be used in the workplace. Spector Pro and PC Pandora can install in full stealth mode, undetectable to the victim. Once you perform the installation you can log in remotely and see just about everything that happens on the target computer. Do note that by using these programs for spying you may be violating the license agreement.

Protect yourself

If you spy on your employees without their knowledge, there's a very good chance you're breaking laws. Yes, it's true that company PCs belong to the company. Yes, your employees should understand that anything they do on a company PC may not be private. Even so, the law may require that you warn employees they may be monitored. Many spy programs include an option to display a notification each time a user logs on.

Spying on your children probably won't get you sued, but there are still risks. You might further alienate a disaffected child, or lose all trust. Think long and hard before engaging in family espionage.

Finally, take action to protect your own computer from cyber-spying. Make sure that all user accounts on the system are protected by strong passwords, and always turn off the PC or lock the desktop when you step away. Those simple steps should keep out anyone but a dedicated hacker.