What is keylogger malware? Explaining the keylogger virus

Keylogger is an effective spying tool, which is used to see what the victim is typing and where it clicks. It may be used both separately and as a part of spyware.

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Keyloggers - do you see what I am typing?

What is keylogger virus?

Keyloggers sound like something primitive and useless. In theory, they are so, because just key pressing sequence logging gives you nothing. That’s why this malware type slowly but surely came to use inside of other malware types.

What is keylogger malware and how did it appear?

A lot of people have a thought about seeing what its colleague/relative type while using your computer. This is not pretty good to spy on someone, so such thoughts usually disappear pretty quickly. But for ones who keep that thing in mind it is normal to wish for a more serious thing then - spyware or backdoors, for example. But let’s talk about the exact keylogger malware - it is not obligatory malicious.

Keylogger malware logs
The example of keylogger malware logs. That is what fraudsters see.

Originally, they’re just simple programs that pick and log any keystroke. Who may need such a function? Primarily, such programs were created for the employers who wanted to control their workers' activities. It is not very pleasant when your employees are chatting or watching YouTube, so they just got such a cunning trick. In our days, large IT companies like Amazon or Microsoft use combined loggers that track keystrokes, mouse pointer moves and activity in applications. Big brother is watching you!

Of course, not only tech giants are interested in controlling someone. Parents sometimes apply using keyloggers to control what their children google or chat about. Not a very pedagogical step, especially for teenagers, and not very effective - you can only see what happened, without the chance to prevent it. That’s why it is better to have a normal parental control set up - fortunately, all modern OS can offer you such an ability. But when you need to get this information stealthy - keyloggers are the only way. Exactly, the other category - jealous spouses or husbands - rely on keyloggers only because of this.

Historical references

First keylogger, or at least the mechanism that was working for the same purpose appeared in the Soviet Union. The US Embassy used an electric typewriter - IBM Selectric - to type all the documents, including the classified ones. In the mid-70s, Soviet spies managed to install the hardware chip that was able to register the key strokes, and transfer it to the KGB. This technology was not new - but was still useless against soviet embassies which used only mechanical typewriters.

IBM Selectric typewriter
IBM Selectric typewriter compared to a mechanical typewriter used in Soviet embassies.

Malicious transformations

Ok, a lot of things that are sometimes called spyware are also used for legit purposes. Even governments use certain software to spy on untrustworthy persons. But where is the edge of benevolence and malevolence? That question is quite philosophical, but the average answer is “where the information from this program is received by a third party”. Sure, any keyloggers are not about morality - just as any other way of spying. But when the data comes only to the developers (or distributors) of the keylogger, that definitely goes against any philosophical definitions of a good.

The stand-alone keylogger is not pretty effective, but still has a lot of potential. Spyware often has a network sniffer module, which helps this malware to intercept the unencrypted data sent through the Internet. However, most of the sites use HTTPS these days, so it is impossible to sniff the data packs. Keyloggers, on the other hand, can steal your passwords and logins just through logging your key pressing sequence. One may say, it gets on a low level to outflank the high-level security.

Are keyloggers a virus?

Depends on how you get it. If you have downloaded it manually, understanding what you are downloading and installing, it is definitely legit. There are a lot of keystrokes logging tools available on the Internet, so you will easily find one if needed. Cybersecurity studies even offer the samples of ones for educational purposes, and a lot of students' jobs are available on the Internet. Another story is when you discover having a keylogger without doing a thing to get it. Regardless of the fact how you discover it, it has likely done its nasty job, and transferred your data to a third party.

Keylogger malware detection
Keylogger detected by Microsoft Defender

Again, the relation of a keylogger with malware or normal programs is a debatable thing. Malware almost always acts for the profit of a third party. Meanwhile, when someone in your family spies on you using a keylogger, it is already a data leak to a third party - your relative. But we used to imagine malware as a thing controlled by people in Guy Fawkes masks. Thus, let’s keep it being so - even though there is little to no difference at all.

Keylogger distribution

As it was mentioned at the beginning, keyloggers nowadays are usually spread officially, or as a part of malware, primarily - the spyware. “Official” distribution does not mean the main website or affiliated sites - rather several themes on well-known online forums, sites with dubious tools (like KMS Activator) or torrent-trackers. Ones that are posted by students, pentesters or professors are usually located on the GitHub. Some high-end keyloggers - more stealthy and with more functionality for exactly spying - are sold in the Darknet.

XSS forum malware selling
Raccoon stealer that is offered in this thread contains keylogger and rootkit.

Malicious examples of ones inside of the spyware is not a thing you will like to have on your PC. As I have described above, it can help the spyware easily outflank even the toughest security mechanisms, and steal your credentials or sniff your conversations. The exact spyware distribution is rarely a massive thing. Since it is able to collect a lot of data about the single victim, it is important to use it wisely, and not to get the info about every Joe in the area. And cybercriminals understand that - so they use it primarily against corporations or celebrities. But keep in mind that sometimes they are interested exactly in every Joe.

Email spam
Such messages may contain a keylogger, as well as stealer or spyware that has a keylogger inside.

This or another way, crooks usually spread spyware through the email spamming, or as a part of “useful tools” you can get online. Email spam is likely an alpha and omega of malware spreading since 2020. People trust emails for some reason, so they open the attachments without any doubts. Then, a script is started - it downloads the malware from a remote server and executes it. Meanwhile, the useful tools may really contain some of the declared functions - but also a spying module.

How can I detect the keylogger on my device?

Regardless if you try to detect it on a mobile device, or on the computer, there are several strict signs that define the keylogger presence. These signs are also the sign of low-quality keylogger: ones used in spyware usually do not give the user such a chance. Nonetheless, you will likely see several of the following signs:

  • Interfaces where the key pressing is required will react with a significant lag;
  • All web pages, especially ones that contain a lot of graphic elements, will load extremely slow;
  • The typed information in all possible places is displayed with a lag;
  • General system slowdown (especially on weak systems);
  • Lag of response when trying to open the folder/start the program;
  • Laptops/mobile phones are discharged much faster than usual;

For sure, that list is not full. Some of the symptoms may be common with other viruses, or even just issues with your hardware or software. That’s why I’d recommend you to scan your device with anti-malware software. It will definitely help you to deal with the malware present on your PC, and protect it from further attacks. For instance, keyloggers are very easy to detect and remove with GridinSoft Anti-Malware - thanks to its Proactive Protection function. The heuristic engine which backs this security module allows it to detect even the newest keyloggers - just by their behaviour.