Privacy is an illusion when using e-mail, engaging in chat conversations, visiting Web sites, and doing everything else online.
The boss can easily see what Web sites you visit at work. Your chat conversations can be recorded by a suspicious spouse or concerned parent. Anyone with an inclination and access to your computer can see your e-mails - even those you deleted. Every keystroke can be recorded.
Anyone who doubts those facts is about to get a loud wake-up call.
This column describes the best-selling “snoop” program marketed for exactly those purposes. Called Spector, it is being promoted to employers, spouses, parents, and other individuals who want to monitor how other people use a computer.
Spector (www.spectorsoft.com) is amazingly powerful, convenient, difficult to detect, and priced within almost anyone's budget at $69.95. It's among several powerful and inexpensive Internet monitoring and surveillance programs that hit the market during the last few years.
WinGuardian (www.winroot.com), for instance, can be downloaded from the company's Web site for a free 15-day test run. For others, search the Internet for terms like “spywear” and “Internet surveillance software.”
What about the ethics of eavesdropping on other people? That's a topic for another time. For now, remember the reality.
Employers have a legal right to monitor employees' online activity. About 60 percent of major U. S. companies do it. Some parents think they have an obligation to keep tabs on children's Internet activity. Spouses and other partners may want to check their suspicions.
Spectorsoft, the spywear's manufacturer, makes that clear in advertising pitches.
“In just one day of running the Spector 2.1 program on my home PC I was able to identify my fiancee's true personality,” states one testimonial. “I found all 17 of his girlfriends, and was able to truly see what a sick and twisted individual he really is. Thank you for saving me from marrying and having children with this undeserving person.”
Then there are testimonials from parents who used Spector to identify adults sexually exploiting their kids via the Internet.
Spectorsoft says the software also is ideal for businesses concerned about how employees are using company computers and Internet time:
“Are your employees goofing off too much online? Sending sexually or racially offensive e-mail jokes? Spreading company confidential information in anonymous chat and message boards? You'll find out with Spector.”
Once installed on a computer, Spector runs in the background in a “stealth” mode. Nobody knows it is running. Nobody can disable it except the person who installed the program.
The program secretly records everything anyone does online. Like a surveillance camera pointed directly at the computer monitor, it takes a “snapshot” of the screen as often as once per second. Like a VCR, it records each screen.
Spector records all e-mails typed and read, chat conversations, instant messages, Web sites visited, programs run, and every keystroke. The snapshots are stored in a secret folder on the computer's hard disk. It takes a password, of course, to access the snapshots.
The program is very easy to use, thanks to a simple, VCR-like control panel that plays the recordings back like a movie - minutes, hours, or days later. You can review the recorded screens one frame at a time, fast-forward, or rapidly search for keywords.
There's only one reliable safeguard, if others have access to your computer: Assume everything you do is being recorded.
Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. His column on computers and technology appears each Saturday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.