Increasing use of stealthy surveillance software for computers and phones is raising legal concerns and alarm among those who help victims of domestic violence.
"These commercial surveillance packages, such as Spector from SpectorSoft, are turning up in domestic violence cases," says Cindy Southworth, director of technology at the Washington, D.C.-based organization National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). The group gets many calls from women who say their abusers know too much. "We advise women, if you're researching an escape plan or trying to find a new job, don't do it on your home PC."
Southworth advises those contacting NNEDV not to delete the surveillance software. Some antivirus packages, such as those from McAfee, F-Secure and Trend Micro, scan to detect stealth-surveillance programs and ask the user if they want to eradicate them.
"If the victim wants to get police involved, you don't want the spyware eliminated," says Southworth. In addition, the spyware can report every few minutes to the individual who installed and controls it, and the act of deleting or attempting to delete it has been known to trigger violence against the one being spied on.
One of the first criminal cases linking spyware and domestic abuse occurred six years ago and involved an estranged husband and wife in Belleview, Mich. The husband had secretly installed surveillance software from SpectorSoft to monitor her computer use. After the wife became suspicious she complained to local law enforcement.
The Michigan Attorney General's high-tech unit came in to investigate, and after getting a search warrant for the husband's computer they discovered reports of his wife's computer activities stored there and identified SpectorSoft's eBlaster as the spyware. SpectorSoft cooperated with Michigan law-enforcement in confirming the husband as the registered software purchaser.
"I remember that one, he got slapped on the wrist with a few years probation," says SpectorSoft President Doug Fowler. The 8-year-old privately held Vero Beach, Fla., firm still "does occasionally get subpoenas from court jurisdictions asking us for information on did this person buy this software."
But Fowler says SpectorSoft, which makes consumer and business versions of its surveillance software, three years ago stopped marketing its products as spouse-spying tools.
"It was a strain on our employees to support this environment that can get kind of nasty," says Fowler, who notes the company has seen plenty of wives trying to spy on husbands, too. "Sometimes we get a wife who's purchased the software and wants to monitor him at work. We tell them, this isn't for monitoring computers you don't own."
There have even been bizarre instances where the husband and wife each purchased SpectorSoft software to try and do surveillance of each other on the same computer -- a technically impossible feat, he says.
Sometimes, says Fowler, SpectorSoft simply ends up disabling the software and refunding the cost, typically under US$100, for the software. SpectorSoft claims its surveillance software today runs on 400,000 desktops -- about 60 percent consumer and 40 percent in business.
But in marketing to the home, the emphasis today from SpectorSoft is on giving parents a tool to monitor their children.