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They Set Up My Computer and Now My Ex Is Spying on Me. What Can I Do?

What you can do when trust goes awry.

Trust is tricky when it comes to computers. When you add relationships to the mix, things quickly get complicated.
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Computer Spy
Question: 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 about technology. And I’m certainly no therapist.

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

Short answer: you’re in trouble until you take some drastic action.

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My ex is spying on me!

The person who set up your computer may have total and ongoing access to it. The only solution is to reinstall everything from scratch so as to remove all of that access. If they have access to your online accounts, then you’ll need to change those passwords as well. Understand going forward that giving anyone that level of access involves a very high level of trust.

Trust given

We need to be very clear about something: whoever sets up your computer has total access to it, not just at the time they set it up, but potentially until 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 the installation, they at least set an administrative password. Of course you can change that password,1 and that might work to a point. If the person who set up your computer is trustworthy, changing passwords would be enough to prevent them from having further access.

Trust violated

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

Changing passwords is not enough if you can’t trust the person who set up your computer.

They could easily have installed spyware, back doors, and use other techniques to continue to give them access. And they could have done this when they set up your system or at any time thereafter.

Scary, huh?

Protect yourself now

The only way to ensure that you and only you have complete control over your machine is to:

  1. Back up to preserve your data and anything else currently on the machine.
  2. Reformat, erasing everything on the machine, which will include anything your ex may have left behind.
  3. Reinstall the operating system and all applications from scratch.
  4. Changing all the online passwords that someone else may have had access to, or may have lifted from your computer while they had access.

Anything short of that could easily leave your ex a back door he can still use to access your system and spy on you or worse.

Do this

The only proper way to ensure you don’t run into this situation again is to learn to do it yourself.

Yes, you could pick another trustworthy friend or family member, or perhaps a computer professional, but the issues remain: how long can you trust them?

Perhaps you have someone you trust completely, and that’s great. It makes life easier for you if you have truly trustworthy tech help.

But even so, learn from this experience. Having someone else set up your computer or have administrative access to it is never something to take lightly.

Podcast audio


Footnotes & References

1: And probably the passwords to other accounts that he created or had access to while setting up your machine.

30 comments on “They Set Up My Computer and Now My Ex Is Spying on Me. What Can I Do?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    • I am going thru the same thing but on an elevated level. A month after I purchased my laptop, my ex got his hands on it. After that, I got the BSOD anywhere from 1 to 15 times a day, every single day that I used my computer. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even get all the way signed in and it would appear. Sometimes it would shut me down 3 or 4 times in a row, literally back to back. When I would use the Troubleshooting feature, it would tell me I wasn’t have any problems with Blue Screen. My ex has infiltrated my Microsoft account and Google account and enrolled my laptop in Enterprise. I have done system restore 4 times, including getting interrupted once that put my laptop out of commission for 4 months. I have re-installed Windows 10 four times, and each time, just as it is finishing up, the BSOD appears and restarts the laptop with the RPCss activated on it all over again. Task Manager always shows remote procedures going on, evidence of it is everywhere, including group policy and in the registry. Please, tell me how to escape this nightmare. Tell me what you need me to show you to prove what I’m saying is true. I will do anything to shut this down because it’s been YEARS that he’s been doing this to me. I just need someone to point me in the right direction. Please.

      • If reinstalling Windows and your programs from scratch doesn’t solve the BSOD problem, it most likely a hardware problem.
        Reinstalling the OS from scratch would remove any rogue software and any logins he would have to your system.

        The only way an installed spyware program would cause a BSOD is if it’s a poorly written program.

  4. 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.


  5. A big thing is that when you are no longer on speaking terms with the person who set up your computer, either learn to do it or have someone else you trust do it. There are many trustworthy computer repair shops that will reinstall your computer so that you can clean out the standing risks but you also then need to go into every site that you used a password for and change them yourself.

  6. Why not remove the Hard Drive and install the OS on the new HDD. Of course, any disks made on an infected machine may be infected, too. So make the install disk, somewhere else trustworthy

  7. Leo… gave the best answer when you said “learn to do it yourself”. Computers are so easy now, compared to even 20 years ago. It just takes a willingness to learn.

  8. As Leo suggested, backup data and have the system reformatted by a technician, no need in going through all the other options. She just wants to feel confident that he isn’t spying on her any more.

  9. In a case like this, a reformat and reinstall is the best way to protect your computer. Also use a new password. No need to get another machine or hard drive as some say here. A freshly installed OS will have none of the spyware the person may have installed. In this case, since it’s Linux, it’s even easier than Windows as probably all of the programs you use are either pre-installed with the distribution or is very easy to install using the Linux Software Center (their version of the Play Store), and the software is usually free.

  10. Just another note of caution – or question? Isn’t there some remote software or laptop recovery software that persist even after wiping the hard drive? I’d be careful that wasn’t on the PC is well – unless I’m completely off-base here… Leo? Thanks.

  11. If it is possible to prove the access, most states have laws on the books prohibiting unauthorized access to computer systems (private and business). I know that in New Jersey, the penalties are severe (both monetarily and incarceration).
    Unauthorized access is considered trespassing, and burglary….
    Get a reputable IT company to come in to check the machine, since there should be traces of the access, and actions that can be taken to prevent further access without having to rebuild your computer.

  12. First – why Linux? Your BF has set up a computer system only HE understands, that he can control. I stongly suggest you:
    1. Get another computer with Windows (OMG!!! I know, but if you cannot control you Linux, you need something you CAN control).
    2. Set it up yourself from scratch – when you get the new computer home, you can set iit up by just following the prompts. He wil have no access.
    3. If you are dead set for Linux (why? – unless you are an uber Geek, you don’t need it), then you still want a new computer, since your BF may have jacked the computer’s firmware for all we know.
    4. This jerk needs to make the acquaintance with a big cop who has daughters. You NEED to report him.
    Become self sufficient – you do not need some guy doing this for you. You are a WOMAN! Be strong!

    • Why Linux? well, it’s free for one thing, generally more secure than Windows, has a better update system than Windows and contains enough software out of the box to get up and running. No need to keep optical discs for software or worrled about losing downloaded software and not being able to replace it because it can’t be downloaded again. There are many reasons to avoid M$ if you don’t need to use it. It’s as easy to learn Linux basics as it is to relearn new versions of Windows. It also doesn’t spy on the user the way Windows does.

      The one possible area that she may need help with though is installing printer drivers if the system doesn’t pick up the printer automatically. Assuming that she has one of course.

      • “It’s as easy to learn Linux basics as it is to relearn new versions of Windows.” With some new WIndows versions, it’s even easier. I used Linux on my work laptop for a year and it did everything I needed. Then I started teaching a course in MS Office and I needed to reinstall WIndows.

  13. One thing that has not been covered here – does your web browser or a password manager on the compromised computer store your usernames and passwords? If so then the scumbag… ahem, I mean formerly trustworthy person could have access to that information as well. So you should change your passwords for any accounts that have stored credentials, and do that now. I’m thinking your ‘core’ online identity accounts especially; e-mail, Facebook, Google and/or Apple.

    You should also check all of your account recovery information in the same way that one would, having been hacked. See Leo’s guides:

    Try and do this at the same time as you are refreshing your computer, perhaps even use another means of access that cannot be monitored as easily, e.g your mobile phone. This should minimise the chances of the guy getting ahead of you if/when he realises what’s going on as you’re preventing further access.

    Use this as the opportunity to enable “two factor” authentication on as many services as possible – see step 6 of “12 Steps To Keep from Getting Your Account Hacked”:

    Lastly, belt and braces; reset your home router / access point and change the default Wi-Fi and management passwords.

    Best of luck. Don’t hesitate to shop the git to the authorities if this becomes an on-going problem.

  14. Hello, I’m so glad to have found this site. I’ve read the article and the comments. I am a computer newbie – all electronics, and network were handled by a tech savvy ex husband. My question, if allowed, is will this advice transfer to a Mac and a home network ? Thank you

  15. Many times one of the first things a toxic partner will do is activate the built in camera so as to keep an eye on you. So one of the very first things you should do, either on a new computer or on a computer you think is compromised, is to cover the camera. The sticky part of a sticky note works just fine for this.

    It’s never a good idea to let a friend or partner set up your computer. If you really need help, take it to a reputable computer repair business and pay to have a professional set it up for you.

  16. I am going to take a path that many might get exercised about. Your BF put in Linux, which can be used by a beginner, but is actually a operating system for advanced computer users, and setting it up and making all the passwords, partitions, what have you can bedaunting. It is NOT the only OS out there.
    Find yourself a Windows disc (you can find some of them fairly cheap on Ebay) and simply wipe the whole disc. Windows gets shade thrown on it, but it is easy, is set up so most anyone can use it, and can be made secure, especially if you set up an administrator password.
    Wipe the disk with some sort of software that leaves nothing on it, and re-install Windows 10 (or 11 if your machine will do it) and keep going. I have used Windows since 1995 and have done OK with it.

    • I wouldn’t trust buying a Windows license on the Internet. Extremely discounted software offers are generally scams or pirated software. Since the person asking the question has been using Linux already, they can back up all their data and download and install the Linux distribution they are already using for free.

  17. If you have a community based DV service, they may also provide guidance with this very common crime. (let’s name it!). They may have computer courses as mentioned and other clients who also have suffered from the problem. These services have much knowledge and can usually be accessed through a DV service number. In Australia e.g. it would be a 1300 number.

  18. DV? I’m guessing domestic violence but don’t know all acronyms from around the globe. Please at least spell it out once for those of us unfamiliar with your local terms. Thanks James in US.

  19. Reply button still not working for me – though it looks above like others are having success. Just wanted to dispute Alex Netherton’s comment that Linux is an “operating system for advanced computer users” – some distros sure are, but there are also very user-friendly ones out there – frankly, even easier to use than Windows. I think it’s fine for people to select what they like/feel comfortable with, but there’s no reason to specifically try to scare anyone off of Linux.

    • Linux Mint is the distribution I recommend and install on people’s computers. I’ve installed it on several seniors’ computers and they had no trouble using it. After all, it’s: Click on the program icon and run the program, just like in Windows. In some ways, it’s harder to learn to use an upgraded version of Windows than it is to learn Linux Mint. Mint looks a lot like XP.

      The shortcuts are in a different location, but other than that, not much difference. And as I mentioned in a previous post, the person who wrote the question has already been using Linux, so that would be their easiest option.


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