Nothing But Net

Mark McFadden<br>I Spy, You Spy

Once -- it seems ages ago -- I was asked to surreptitiously examine the content of another employee’s computer to look for evidence of wrongdoing. I did it. Even though we found evidence that the employee had broken both work rules and the rules of common decency, I still felt like I had violated someone’s privacy. I was glad that it at least took some degree of technical skill to spy on my colleague down the hall.

Today that meager safeguard has disappeared. A whole market of programs has emerged that allow one to secretly record everything a person does with a computer. The emergence of these snooping programs leaves me cold: doesn’t anyone have a conscience anymore? Is there any possibility of privacy in our online world?

One of the programs, SpectorSoft’s eBlaster, promises that it will let the user "find out everything your spouse, children, and employees do online via e-mail." I can imagine some people defending the use of the program -- perhaps providing a parent with warnings about drug use, gang participation, thoughts of suicide, or other threats to a child’s well-being. It’s also possible to imagine an employer using the spying software to ensure compliance with work rules and to detect other wrongdoing.

Even so, it’s wrong.

Defenders of this technology always seem to take the perspective of the person doing the spying and never the children, employees, or spouses he or she is spying upon. Defenders of this technology seldom use the word "trust" either.

Spying on children online, for instance, is almost laughable. If you think your 14-year-old is doing, saying, or seeing things you don’t approve of -- it’s time to move on. If I remember my teenage years correctly, the kid is going to do what they want whether you spy on them or not. If you block access to the computer in your house, the computer at a friend’s will do just as well. Stealthy technology like eBlaster invites equally stealthy responses by those being spied upon. Today’s technology-savvy kids are likely to find a way to disable the software while working online and then start it up again after their finished -- without you knowing it.

What about spying on an employee? The truly bad employee is going to be caught anyway -- with or without spying technology. Really good employees are going to migrate to companies where there is an atmosphere of trust. The rest will forever resent the image of an employer that looks over their shoulder at every possible moment. If I use the corporate e-mail to receive an emergency message from my day care provider, what need does my employer have to discover that my kid has chicken pox?

I’m well aware that the legal system today says that it is okay for companies to read their employees e-mail and spy on them as they use their computers.

But ask yourself: just because you can do it, does that make it right?

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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