TeamViewer Accused of Spying On Users, Wrongfully Locking Out Free Users From Their Computers

Teamviewer Commercial Use

If you have been looking for a simple, easy to use way of using your computer remotely, chances are you have heard about the popular TeamViewer service.  This remote access software allows you to use your computer from another computer or mobile device as if you were sitting in front of it.  Its basically a powerful and user friendly remote desktop client.  However, it looks like the trust of many, including my own,  may have been misplaced in TeamViewer.

I have been a user of TeamViewer for years as I often find myself needing to do something on my computer at home when I am not at home or find myself needing a file or something.  Its also what I use to operate my telescope remotely from inside my house instead of having to sit out in the weather to use it.  However, my life of TeamViewer bliss came crashing down on Wednesday and apparently I’m not the only one to get hit with this problem.

What problem did I encounter?  When I went to log into my gaming machine at home using TeamViewer like I am known to do occasionally for a few minutes at a time, I was greeted with a popup accusing me of using the free version of their services for commercial use.  I was told I have 5 minutes to use the computer and then I would be kicked off.  When I tried to log back in to the computer after the 5 minutes, my access was blocked and I was told that if I believed it to be a false positive I should file a support ticket which I immediately did.

Upon filing the ticket, it said nothing about when I would get a response so I reached out to the company on Twitter and was told that each case was handled individually and typically takes 7 or more days to get a response.  Obviously being locked out of my computer for a week is not something I was pleased about.  Thankfully I have other remote desktop software running on my machines so it wasn’t a huge problem however none of the others are as powerful and user friendly as TeamViewer.

Wondering why I was being accused of this and if I was alone in being locked out of my computer and falsely accused of using my free license for commercial purposes I reached out to the Global Geek News audience to see if others shared a similar fate and surprisingly I was not alone!  After being bitten by this false positive, others appear to have ditched the service for alternatives for fear of having their actions spied upon.

One Global Geek News reader who wished to remain anonymous said “I have never used my gaming rig for commercial purposes so when I tried to log into it and got this warning I knew it was total bullsh*t.”  Another reader said, “I had no idea they were spying on their users but after I was falsely accused of using it for commercial purposes I switched to another remote desktop service that I think I can trust.  Clearly my trust in TeamViewer was misplaced.”

So I decided to reach out TeamViewer for some clarification as to what exactly is going on.  Are they spying on users?  How are they spying?  Is this a case of AI doing a crappy job or is somebody sitting there watching what people are doing when they use their computers remotely?  Is there any human oversight to these detections?  Are there any privacy protections for users?  What is the rate of false positives with this detection technology?  Why does it take so long to fix the problem?  It does seem like a long time to be locked out of ones computer after all!  I had questions.  Unfortunately, they did not have good answers to almost all of these questions.

Here is the response I got from their communications and social media manager Juulia Ruha:

Thank you for your enquiry.

TeamViewer is free of charge for personal use and does not contain any third-party advertisement – this has always been the case and applies not only to our standard product but also, for example, to innovations such as our augmented reality solution TeamViewer Pilot. This approach is part of our vision and business model and anchored in the DNA of our company. We appreciate the large community of private users, from whom we receive continuously valuable feedback and who recommend us further to others, hence enabling our exponential growth. The free software is meant for people helping their friends and family remotely with any problems. They do not have to buy a subscription.

Furthermore, we have specified in our End User License Agreement (“EULA”) that anyone who uses TeamViewer commercially should pay for it and purchase a corresponding subscription. Unfortunately, not everyone who uses TeamViewer commercially, is buying a subscription. We try to counteract this and to identify those users who unlawfully use our software for free – as this is not fair regarding to other commercial users who pay for the software.

We also describe how we try to identify those users in the “EULA”: We analyze product usage behavior, for example how often a TeamViewer ID is used, how many different IDs it regularly connects to, or what type of device is in question for the ID. These factors enable us to detect unusual and/or conspicuous user behavior, which suggests commercial use. This method is very accurate i.e. we are correct in most cases. However, in rare cases, we may mistakenly identify personal users as commercial users and then temporarily block them. If this happens, the affected users may follow a procedure on our website, which allows them to prove that they are using TeamViewer for personal use and thus get their TeamViewer ID unlocked: https://community.teamviewer.com/t5/Knowledge-Base/Why-do-I-see-Commercial-use-suspected-Commercial-use-detected/ta-p/5265

Private users usually receive feedback within seven days. However, as we examine each case individually it may take longer than seven days to receive an answer. We want to make sure that we only filter out those users who are using our software unrightfully. In addition, we are working on improving this process.

If you choose not to read that assuming its just the usual PR blather that most companies will spew, you were right and saved yourself 30 seconds of your life.  Here is a quick recap of the important parts.

She briefly gives a vague answer as to how the technology attempts to detect commercial use but with the factors that they seem to take into account, I have a hard time imagining they produce any real statistically significant results as there are a multitude of different use cases for this type of software (non-commercially) so trying to find something meaningful would be next to impossible with those criteria.  Between my own false positive experience and those of others, the claim that the method is very accurate and correct in most cases (so at least 50% accurate which would be pretty pathetic if true) seems dubious at best.

However, I would like to highlight their complete dodge of questions related to spying on users and user privacy.  They do not mention if this detection is done by humans or AI, if there is any human oversight, what ability employees might have in seeing your activity, or what privacy protections are in place if anything.  And they make no mention of why it takes so long for them to investigate false positives and restore access to people’s computers.  Perhaps they have large logs of users activities they have to sift through?  They certainly aren’t saying.

I have long recommended TeamViewer for anybody looking to remotely access their computer largely due to their easy to use and reliable software.  Unfortunately, I can no longer in good conscious recommend TeamViewer to anybody.  With their evasiveness when it comes to any privacy related concerns, their commercial use detection that seems to be prone to false positives and the ungodly amount of time it takes to hopefully resolve the issue, I think TeamViewer should be avoided in favor of one of the many alternatives.

Whether this is some scam to try to get free users to start paying, I don’t know.  However it certainly seems possible to me!  After all, I’m sure a lot of people would be willing to pay up rather than risk losing access to their computer for over a week, whether they are using the software for commercial purposes or not.

That said, do the readers of Global Geek News have any suggestions for alternatives to TeamViewer?  I’m currently using Parsec to access my computers but that is really mainly for gaming and their Android client sucks for anything other than gaming.  Personally, I’m looking for something with an easy to use and powerful Android client similar to TeamViewer.  Please give me suggestions in the comments below!  I’m mainly looking for something free and that I can use with multiple computers (at least a half dozen).

Share this with any TeamViewer users you know because they need to know about this!