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Big Brother Is Tapping Your Cheating eHeart

Jealous spouses seem to be the biggest users of new software that records others' electronic activities, stroke for stroke.

September 13, 2000|LIBBY COPELAND | WASHINGTON POST

"I'm not doing anything wrong, believe me," she'd said for weeks. But he didn't believe her.

Fifty bucks bought him software to slip into the family computer and secretly record his wife's every move, like a leprechaun crouching amid the circuit boards with a tiny camera.

At 5 a.m., when she's sleeping upstairs, he ventures onto the computer. Starts up the new software and finds a series of black-and-white snapshots taken off the screen while she was online--her every come-on, every flirtation, every misspelling is saved. The correspondent is some guy elsewhere in Nebraska, and the talk is not just flirting but, you know, graphic--and Greg Young begins to cry.

But he doesn't confront her, not then. For a month he watches her, dropping hints here and there. For the longest time, she can't figure out how he knows so much. By the time she does, well, it really doesn't matter. The marriage is over.

This is a cautionary story about the permanence of the online word. It's somewhat like the flap over Carnivore, the software that allows the FBI to monitor e-mail--except the software we're talking about is arguably more menacing. Because it's cheap. Because its legality hasn't been questioned. Because it can be on your computer without your knowledge. And because it's become the instrument for the most insecure of people: jealous lovers.

Greg Young, 46, discovered it after 22 years of marriage to Rita Young, 46, and now the two are finalizing a painful divorce.

"If you can't get the truth," says Greg Young, "you gotta do something."

Spector is made by a company based in Vero Beach, Fla., which Young happened to find in his online searches. He could have found other similar software: WinWhatWhere Investigator, Desktop Surveillance, Cyber Snoop, 007 Stealth Activity Monitor. Dozens of companies publish computer monitoring software for the home; many make a similar product for the workplace.

Companies like Spectorsoft, which makes Spector, intended their home versions for parents concerned about children's online adventures. But six months after Spector was launched in early 1999, a wronged fiancee e-mailed her thanks after nabbing her significant other having cyber sex.

Spector's weapon is omniscience: Operating like a quick-clicking camera, it takes a picture every few seconds of whatever is on the screen. The pictures play back in slide show fashion, like a herky-jerky '20s film.

Spector also can record every raw keystroke, every syllable and space, even if the person immediately deletes them. (Want to find your husband's password so you can root around in his e-mail?)

Spector started posting banner ads and counting the traffic. "The 'Spouse cheating? Find out with this' was getting four times the click-through rate that the other ads were getting," says company President Doug Fowler. The company, which claims to have sold 7,000 units, recently released a new program, eBlaster, that makes remote snooping possible. The snooper needs access to the subject's computer just once, to install the software. After that, eBlaster automatically e-mails reports of everything done on the computer.

On sites devoted to discussing adultery, message boards flurry with recommendations for this or that brand of snooping software. Private investigators use the software in adultery cases.

"We have a whole network of private investigators that resell Desktop Surveillance personal edition, and I'd say probably 95% of the clientele that purchase this product from them are suspecting spouses," says Julie Allen, director of product development for Tech Assist, a Clearwater, Fla., company that distributes Desktop. "Then they call you back hysterically crying and in need of psychological counseling."

Like other software of its kind, Spector can be installed overtly or in stealth mode, and like that of other companies, Spectorsoft's official line is that consumers should tell spouses and children they're installing it. But the company's Web site proposes something else in big, multicolored letters: "Secretly record everything your spouse, children and employees do online."

Whether this software violates state or federal wiretapping laws is simply not clear. Spokesmen for the U.S. Justice Department have never seen cases involving the software. Internet lawyers have not seen any suits.

"It's not wiretapping in any traditional sense," says Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer in Massachusetts. "The question does become whether wiretapping laws can be stretched to cover this."

As much as the clandestine nature of such programs worries privacy experts and infuriates those who've been spied on, it's also a selling point. The secrecy let Greg Young know his wife was going to meet a man in Missouri he says she met over the Internet. That was the final straw. Now, he waits for a judge to settle the divorce. Now, Rita Young gets a call from a reporter who wants to know what she thinks of this software.

She has little to say. She confirms the basic outline of her estranged husband's account. Yes, she chatted a lot. No, she doesn't deny she flirted. She never cheated, though, she says, and the man she met in Missouri was a friend.

What do you think of the technology that infiltrates your home, that makes chat rooms so enticing, that makes temptation so immediate? Do you ever wish the Internet hadn't entered your life?

"Yes I do," Rita Young says, and does not elaborate.

credit FOR illustration

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