You don't have to work for the NSA to spy on people. All you need is $79 to buy a piece of software called SniperSpy, that you can remotely install on other people's computers. "No physical access is needed to the computer for installation."
The software, according to a company press release, "is completely hidden from view on PC and Mac computers." And, once installed, "the system begins keeping logs of every action performed. Parents log in to a secure account from any web browser to monitor activities and see the current screen of the monitored computer like a television."
According to a company press release, issued on Aug. 15, "New features added into version 8.0 include Stealth Webcam and Microphone Recording to allow parents to hear and see the environment around their child's computer," which means you're not just able to know what the person is doing on their computer, but see and hear whatever they're doing as long as they're near their computer.
The product is marketed to parents and employers to use on computers they own, and if you scroll to the bottom of the company's home page and click on "terms and conditions," you'll learn that "Monitoring software is 100 percent legal as long as the computer you are installing it onto is YOUR computer. We do not condone, promote or tolerate the use of our software for illegal purposes."
But, in another part of its site, the company explains that "The (surveillance) module can then be sent to the remote computer as an email attachment. You can even rename the module anything you want to hide the fact that it is a monitoring program from the remote user (emphasis added).
While misuse of their software is against their stated policy, it appears -- from their descriptions -- that there are no technical barriers preventing people from abusing the software. But that begs the question of if it's appropriate for software to be stealthily installed, even on computers you own that are used by your children or employees.
SniperSpy is far from the only company with software designed to help parents and employers monitor child and employee's activity. And, while some products automatically let people know they're being monitored, some -- like SniperSpy -- operate in stealth mode, though usually they do require physical access to the device for installation.
Legal issues aside, monitoring people's use of a computer and remotely turning on their webcam without their knowledge is almost never a good idea -- even for parents concerned about their children's well being.
To begin with, there is the issue of trust. Even if you succeed in installing the software without your kids or employees knowing, if you find them doing something inappropriate, you'll almost certainly want to confront them. But, instead of the conversation being about whatever you think they did wrong, they're likely to immediately question why you were spying on them.
If you think it's appropriate to monitor, it's useful to first have a conversation explaining why you're doing it, what information you are collecting and what you plan to do with the information. It's also important to check with local laws to determine whether it is legal to monitor without the person's permission.
There is also the issue of too much information. Programs that record every keystroke will provide you with a torrent of data, in many cases, more than you would ever need or want. Before installing software like this you really need to think about whether you want or need to collect this much information.
And even if you suspect the person you're monitoring is doing something wrong, do you really think it's right to monitor everything they're doing, including personal conversations with friends or family?
Even if it's legal (which I'm not sure about ), I don't think it's right, except in some very rare cases.
Larry Magid's technology column appears Wednesdays in The Daily News. Email can be sent to email@example.com.