Spying on other people's computers.

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

Going Dark

Spying on other people's computers.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The good ol' Internet: always coming up with new solutions to old problems. Modern man suspects wife is up to something. Modern man installs PC Pandora, a spyware application that records keystrokes, takes surreptitious screen shots, and monitors chat sessions—all for the low, low price of $49.95. Success! Modern man writes a congratulatory note to the company, which it posts on its "testimonials" page:

My wife of 25 years came out of the blue after Christmas this past year and requested a divorce without much explanation. I was devastated, so I purchased your product. It only took two days to find out she has been living a dark secret life for several years as a submissive love slave to a dominant male partner in the BDSM world meeting him at least once a month. She was blown out of the water when I told her everything I knew about her lifestyle even down to the name and email address of the person she is involved with. Answered all my questions. She has no clue and thinks I spent $$$$$$ on a private investigator.

Despite modern man's feelings of triumph, it's hard to see any winners there. It's easier than ever to spy on our spouses, co-workers, boyfriends, and roommates. But does this make us happier and wiser or just more neurotic and creepy? The lesson of every surveillance movie, from The Conversation to The Lives of Others, is that listening in corrupts your peace of mind and destroys your emotional intuition.

Explore the world of commercial "spy" software and you quickly discover three main battlegrounds: girlfriends/wives vs. boyfriends/husbands, employers vs. employees, and parents vs. teenagers. You also read some of the most twisted moral logic ever committed to screen.

When the PC Pandora site opens, for example, a trim lady in a pink shirt pops up and cheerfully declares: "At this very moment, there are over 50,000 pedophiles on the Internet trying to take advantage of our children." Well then, I better install a program that records everything my kids do online and then spend my afternoons scanning the logs! In the eyes of these monitoring-software companies, MySpace is the devil's playground. The promotional copy often gives the impression that setting up a page on MySpace is but the merest pretext to an after-school Roman orgy. The message: If you don't know what "LMIRL" or "NIFOC" or "POS" means, you might as well drop your daughter off at a truck stop right now. (That's "let's meet in real life," "naked in front of the computer," and "parent over shoulder.")

It's also worth noting how these sites stress their excellent phone support—the software packages are being pitched predominately to the technically clueless. If Mom and Dad did know how to use a computer, they could easily find a recent study by the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, "Online 'Predators' and Their Victims: Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention." Or, quicker yet, they could read an excellent summary of the study by Benjamin Radford at LiveScience. As he explains, the biggest threat to kids is still their parents, the Internet has not increased the amount of sexual abuse of children, and most Web predators rarely use deception as "most victims are well aware that the person they are communicating with online is an adult interested in sex." Monitor your kids if you want, but recognize that you are spying on them, not protecting them from a new strain of evildoers.

The Pandora software is aptly named. It evokes both the dubious idea that the computer is a Pandora's box which holds all of our secrets, and the obvious end result of any snooping: Once this stuff gets out, you wish it could be put back in. The snooper also faces the unavoidable dilemma that any information that he or she finds out almost certainly won't be worse than the breach of trust of installing monitoring software. That's why these applications sell themselves under the guise of "protecting your family" rather than "seeing what YouTube videos your husband watches." We all deserve to have a public self and a backstage self, even if that backstage self has a plushie fetish.

The office landscape is more clear-cut: Bosses want employees to "be productive"; employees want to look at ESPN.com on occasion. Or, perhaps, pornography. It's not so much that everyone is looking at porn. It's that the people who look at porn tend to look at a lot of it. A commenter on Slashdot proposes a vivid solution for his own workplace:

I stopped "special" surfing at the office when I put a linux box on a hub between the network internet router and the switches. I simply sniffed all traffic for image files and displayed it on a 42" LCD out in the sales area. Images were displayed of what people were surfing. I also attached the ip address of the user to the image. It stopped inappropriate internet surfing in that office in 3 days. When everyone can see what you are doing, you get back to real work.

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!

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.

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