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PC spies eye children, lovers, employees

By Ann Kellan
CNN Technology Correspondent

ATLANTA, Georgia -- What would you do if you discovered your spouse, parent or employer spied on your computer activity, secretly watching the Web sites you visit, the e-mails you read and even the passwords you use?

Software that allows such virtual snooping is available. It is relatively cheap, easy to use, and raises serious questions about whether computers can be private.

One woman, who met her live-in boyfriend on the Internet, is afraid he has returned to the Web to flirt with other women.

"I was actually getting concerned because he was talking with women on the phone and I really wanted to know, you know, what was going on," said the woman, who hid her identity because her boyfriend does not know she is spying on him.

"I would check the history files and see that he had been to singles Web sites, looking at profiles of other women, in some instances, going to porn sites, chatting, instant messaging other women," she said. "I could never see what exactly he was typing. All I could see was this is where he was and this is what he looked at."

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That's when she installed software called Spector on her computer. The software can be installed so that it is difficult to detect and can take as many as one snapshot per second of the computer screen. She monitors his Web surfing, his e-mail, and his online chats.

The software has found a place in the workplace as well as the home. One toy storeowner installed Spector on his company computer when he observed suspicious behavior.

"I noticed employees were closing windows on computers when I walked into the room."

Instead of working, some employees were surfing the Internet, or worse, he said.

"The time they were supposed to be working in the store they were actually trying to hack into our accounting system, to see what our revenues were, to see what we were making."

He has found out other details about his employees too.

"It's scary what you find out sometimes. It's things you probably don't want to know, wish you didn't know," he said.

The storeowner said he purposely ignores information like personal bank account statements and passwords.

Privacy concerns

Does the software violate privacy laws? In this case, probably not, according to attorney Mark Rasch. The owner told the employees when they were hired that they were going to be monitored.

"Most companies have a policy that says if you use our computers you consent to our monitoring," Rasch said.

But what about the case of the woman who spies on her boyfriend?

"You know, I feel like this is my computer. I purchased it and it's my right to know what goes on. I told him I watch him. I just didn't tell him how or how detailed," she said.

According to Rasch, even if it is your computer, if another person using it does not know he or she is being watched, you could be breaking the law.

"The federal law doesn't say that you have a right to monitor anybody's communication if they happen to be using your telephone or your computer. Basically you need to have the consent of one of the parties to the communication," he said.

In some cases, state laws could be more restrictive, for example, requiring both parties to consent. Spectorsoft owner Doug Fowler said his company's licensing policy is clear.

"According to our licensing agreement they should inform anybody who's going to use that computer," he said.

Worth the risk?

But Fowler admits that people have used the software to catch cheating spouses or to monitor the behavior of their children without their knowledge.

"We believe that you have the right to know what your children are doing, what your spouse is doing, what your employees are doing in order to protect your company. But you do not have the right in any way shape or form to monitor your next door neighbor or your enemy or anybody you happen to be having a chat conversation on the Internet," he said.

The toy store owner also used Spector to monitor his son secretly.

"Turns out the 16-year-old stepson was looking at porn, talking to people he shouldn't talk to. We nipped that in the bud and cut off his computer privileges," he said.

But is it illegal for parents to use Spector to spy on their kids?

"What I would as a parent argue is that I can consent to my kid's monitoring. Hey, it's my kid. I can read their mail, but the federal law doesn't make any distinction. If I'm reading anybody's communications without their consent or without a consent of one party, I'm violating federal law," said Rasch.

For one Spector user, the peace of mind is worth the risk.

"It's actually been a good thing, to help me build my trust for him," said the woman monitoring her boyfriend.

• SpectorSoft

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