Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Trust is tricky when it comes to computers. When you add relationships to the mix, things quickly get complicated, and unfortunately, very serious.

I was dating a guy who installed Linux on my computer and is also the administrator on my computer. He can completely monitor my computer from his home. We are no longer dating but he is still screwing around with my computer. What can I do? He also knows my passwords.

I normally avoid these types of relationship-related tech questions because they're more about relationships than they are about technology. And I'm certainly no Dr. Phil.

However I get this type of question so often, I'm going to use it as an example of the technological implications when good relationships go bad.

Short version: you're in trouble until you take some drastic action.

I need to start by being very clear about something: whoever sets up your computer has total access to it. And not just at the time they set it up, but potentially from that day forward, until the day you reformat the machine.

Think about that carefully for a second: the person who installed the operating system for you has total access to your machine.

As part of that installation, they at least set the administrative password, so they of course know what that is. Now, you could say, "I'll just change the password", and that might work to a point. You might need to change more passwords than just the administrator's, but for the moment let's assume that's enough. If the person who set up your computer is trustworthy, changing that password would be enough to prevent their further access.

"... whoever sets up your computer has total access to it."

But what if they're not trustworthy? Or what if they become untrustworthy?

There's a adage in the computer world that runs along the lines of "don't piss off the sysadmin". The sysadmin, or system administrator, controls the system, and the adage is simply that you don't want to upset that person and have them cancel your account, delete your important files or whatever. A good and trustworthy sysadmin won't, of course.

The person who set up your machine is your sysadmin. As long as they have access to your computer, they can do whatever they want.

Changing passwords is not enough if your sysadmin is untrustworthy. They could easily have installed spyware, backdoors and other ways that they could retain access no mater what you do. And they could have done this at system installation time or anytime thereafter.

Scary, huh?

The only way to positively ensure that you and only you have complete control over your machine is to backup and then reformat and reinstall the operating system and all applications from scratch. Anything short of that could quite easily leave your former sysadmin/boyfriend the backdoor he can still use to access your system and spy on you, or worse.

And the only way to ensure that you're not going to run into this situation again is to learn to do it yourself. Yes, you could pick another friend or family member, but the issues remain: can you trust them and how long can you trust them?

Perhaps you have someone that you can trust completely, and that's great, but do learn from this experience that setting up your computer or allowing anyone else administrative access to it is never something to be taken lightly.

Article C3301 - February 25, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Greg Bulmash
February 25, 2008 12:16 PM

If he's trespassing into her computer without permission and spying on her, she could get another Linux geek to record proof of it and go to the cops under anti-hacking or anti-stalking laws in her state.

Getting rid of him as root on her system is good advice, but it might be nice to buy him a night in the clink and a couple hundred hours of community service as a going away present.

Rusty Wright
February 29, 2008 9:07 PM

I suggest you join a Computer User Group.
You can learn the fundamentals there, how to backup, and reformat the computer.
It's not real complicated, but a knowledgable person can teach anyone.
Do a Google search for computer user groups in your area. Best of luck to you.

March 6, 2008 7:20 PM

Since you are using Linux and you might not be able to find someone to help you, one cheap solution is to buy a used hard drive off ebay with an OS on it like XP, just swap drives, make sure its set to master etc, your up and running in no time.

March 16, 2008 4:35 PM

is it really trespassing if she gave him access initially and are there state or federal laws that hold water on this type of stuff?

March 12, 2010 8:37 PM

I know how she feels--helpless. I thought I knew a few things about computers, but I have a similar problem & have learned I know very little. I spend hours (until I realize I have "butt numb") searching for a solution. I agree with the person who suggested getting a new hard drive, but I wouldn't even begin to know how to do that either. If I were her & could afford it, I would donate the "infected" computer at the next local e-waste event or nearest e-waste facility & buy another.

March 1, 2011 9:47 AM

Back up your personal data to an external or other drive. Burn it onto discs if you have to. Then BEFORE you wipe your current OS, DL whatever distro you like or are familiar with and burn the iso. Many are extremely easy to install. You can GUI all the way and be up and running in no time. The install will give you the option of creating a new partition or wiping and starting over. Wipe it. Then repost your data where it belongs. There, you're done and clean.

If your scared of flying without a net, I would recommend burning a live cd distro such as puppy so you can run that and get on the net to look for help if you encounter any glitches during install. There's lots of help out there.

This is an area which has always kind of bothered me. I've set up sites and computers and even pay-pal shopping carts for many people, family, studio clients (music artists), friends etc. I could probably go back through my paper files and find much sensitive information on these people.

It's just the nature of the beast. I MUST have this information in order to set up pay per download and other such things. Non tech people just want plug and play. "Make it work", is what I heard most often, even after explaining that I really didn't want to know the information and offering to teach them how to do it themselves. Even if it takes six times longer to hold their hand and have them do it, I'm willing to do that for no extra cost.

100% of my clients, family, friends, whoever, have said "No, I trust you. Here's my credit card number and you set up the passwords."

Now, I'm a trustworthy hippie. I would never dream of abusing the trust. I pride myself on that. BUT, I still don't want the information. What if someone else got into their account somehow and did some damage. I can see some rabid prosecutor learning of my knowledge and making life hell for me trying to prove my innocence.

Even when just setting up a home machine, I beg people to change my root or admin psswd. If I need to help later, you can log me in and let me do my thing. They never do.

My point is that if you have sensitive information on your machine, it is up to YOU to secure it. If you're getting advice or set up from someone, be it a friend or a hired gun, who doesn't offer you a way to completely lock them out after their work is done, run, don't walk, away.

If you're not willing to learn how to secure your own stuff, maybe you should take a hard look at how much sensitive information you put on your machine.

March 1, 2011 7:45 PM

boot in single user mode and change your root password he doesn't know the password u reseted

Actually that's not enough. He could have other accounts that have sudo privilege, or he could be logging into root without a password at all using public key authentication.

Alex Dow
March 7, 2011 2:16 AM

Two aspects that are not clear-

How does she know that he "is now spying on me"?

Does the ex-boyfriend have direct, physical, hands-on access; or is it the more-likely Remote Access?


If the latter, then is it not possible to simply de-install any (Linux) programs that provide such facilities?

Not having experience of Linux, I can't immediately name any such programs; but thinking of the limited amount of Linux software, it seems unlikely that there are many to track down etc.

Alex Dow

May 29, 2011 6:21 PM

I need help. My fiancé Bought Ming password spy and has recently gotten into my email account. He has come clean about the situation but what I'm wondering is if my email is still compromised. We work together, we own our own business, he has it installed on his laptop at home. I've created a new email since but am wondering if it's too late if there are logs running. Please help.

July 5, 2012 2:04 PM

I think the only safe way to get rid of this spying terror is to buy another machine.Im almost sure somebody is havin an access to my data.Its probably one of my ex-dates or (I don't like to say it) my current boyfriend or someone who just hacked me.I know Its so uncomfortable.

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