Spying on other people's computers.

Culture and technology.
Aug. 12 2008 12:21 PM

Going Dark

Spying on other people's computers.

(Continued from Page 1)

Good point, but it gets tricky when you try to decide what constitutes "getting back to real work." Some argue that a little personal surfing at work actually makes employees more productive. Software "solutions" like BeAware (Corporate Edition) and the creepy Spector360 ("Who is arriving to work late and leaving early? Who takes long lunch breaks?") seem pitched to the David Brents of the world. The makers of the Spector360 will tell you that their product will "significantly reduce the amount of goofing off that has grown common in most workplaces (one hour per day per employee, on average)." What they won't tell you is that you're a jerk. If your employees are watching "Funny Cats 3" all day long, the problem isn't unfiltered access to the Internet. The problem is that your workplace is boring, and probably very sad.

Which brings us to boyfriends, girlfriends, significant others, etc. The monitoring-software sites know that a jealous lover is a moth to their flame. They try to give your motive a scientific, fact-finding air, offering such tips as PC Pandora's "29 Signs Your Partner May Be Cheating." (My favorite: "You might find that they are suddenly grooming themselves more diligently.") The testimonials include those who are happy to have found out the truth, like our BDSM friend, and the FAQs float the sketchy idea that even a "hidden secret" can destroy a relationship, so it's better to install the software and get confirmation. Nice try.

The spying dynamic on the battlegrounds of love hasn't changed since Shakespeare: so tempting, so ruinous. This fellow, who posted on the Experience Project, speaks for all of his brethren:

I have developed an extremely unhealthy habit in my relationship with my fiance[e]. Unbeknownst to her, I have installed onto our computer a key logging spy software which let me see all her activities and passwords. Since then, I have read all of her accounts: my space, face book, gmail, everything. ... I hate myself because I have read very candid and personal letters and correspondence between her and her ex lovers. Logically, I know that they have nothing to do with me b/c she didn't even know me then, but I still find myself incredibly jealous. I hate myself for lying to her like this. I have even found nude photos of her that she sent to her ex. ... I didn't lie to her in the beginning of our relationship, but now I feel more and more obsessed and it's awful!

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One way out might be to confess and turn this all into a screenplay, but that's been done before.

In the end, the safest and best sort of spying seems to be of the Socratic variety: Know thyself. I've let Last.fm monitor my music-listening habits, and now it gives eerily good recommendations. Google eavesdrops on my computer so that it can personalize my search results, track my Web history, and rearrange my furniture sometimes. I've also fired up the Firefox extension MeeTimer, which records the amount of time I spend procrastinating on particular sites. (Damn you, Desktop Tower Defense!) The results of my personal espionage? Probably the same as yours: No man is a hero to his valet, or to his computer.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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