Nov 20, 2014 · 1 minute

Amnesty International has partnered with several other human rights groups to release Detekt, a free tool that allows Windows users to determine if their machines are infected with spyware. It's part of a wider effort to maintain a modicum of privacy in the face of mass surveillance programs.

It's impossible to know how long Detekt will be able to find advanced spyware. Intelligence agencies are some of the best-funded government organizations in the world, and they have a vested interest in making sure tools like Detekt don't work, or at least aren't totally foolproof.

Detekt's supporters know this. "Please beware that Detekt is a best effort tool," they warn on the tool's website. "While it may have been effective in previous investigations, it does not provide a conclusive guarantee that your computer is not compromised by the spyware it aims to detect."

Amnesty International warns that the best way to combat spyware isn't through the creation of tools like Detekt but through increased regulations concerning the export of surveillance tools:

Amnesty International is urging governments to establish strict trade controls requiring national authorities to assess the risk that the surveillance equipment would be used to violate human rights before authorizing the transfer.

'Detekt is a great tool which can help activists stay safe but ultimately, the only way to prevent these technologies from being used to violate or abuse human rights is to establish and enforce strict controls on their use and trade,' said Marek Marczynski. Still, it's better to have a tool like Detekt available while governments attempt to sort out their response to the spyware trade than to leave untold numbers of people vulnerable with the hope that regulators pay attention. Besides, how else are people going to detect government spying?

Detekt is in that sense emblematic of many anti-surveillance tools: it's imperfect, it's impossible to know how long it will remain effective, and it's a technological stop-gap meant to bide time until politicians decide to fix a legal problem.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]