Prying eyes are everywhere

By Janet Kornblum, USA TODAY
Robert Gortarez is no private eye.

But with an $80 piece of software intended to track what his son was doing on the Internet, the 36-year-old Phoenix real estate investor uncovered some information about what his wife — now his ex-wife — was doing online as well.

Gortarez isn’t the only one. Husbands and wives, moms and dads, even neighbors and friends increasingly are succumbing to the temptation to snoop, thanks to a growing array of inexpensive, easily accessible high-tech sleuthing tools once available only to professional investigators.

Move over, Big Brother. Little Brother is squeezing in.

From software that secretly monitors computer activity to tiny hidden surveillance cameras and global positioning system devices, spy tools that can track a person’s location now can be purchased in retail stores and on the Internet.

And a growing amount of free personal information is so easy to find online that many Internet regulars don’t think of it as spying. Plug a name into Google and you have an instant background check of your best friend, your brother-in-law or that guy or gal you met last night at a bar.

“e;You can bug people the way spy agencies used to do 20 years ago — really cheap now,”e; says Howard Rheingold, author ofSmart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. “e;The Orwellian vision was about state-sponsored surveillance. Now it’s not just the state, it’s your nosy neighbor, your ex-spouse and people who want to spam you.”e;

It’s unclear how many Americans actually are using these new tools to check up on one another, especially since most people don’t exactly broadcast it. But experts say citizen sleuthing is on the rise.

“e;My guess is it’s very popular, just given how many people call me,”e; says Deborah Pierce of Privacy Activism, a non-profit advocacy organization based in San Francisco. Pierce is speaking this week at the 15th annual Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference in Seattle.

Pierce says the fact that legal cases are starting to hit the courts “e;tells me it’s prevalent.”e;

A Florida state appeals court judge, for example, ruled in February that spy software that a wife had installed on her husband’s computer was illegal.

Other cases in the headlines involve a Colorado Springs man who was arrested in February after he was accused of planting a GPS device in his wife’s car to track her. And after a privacy outcry, an elementary school in Sutter, Calif., abandoned a plan that gave children mandatory radio-frequency ID badges so the school would know where they were at all times.

Spying is so common that thousands of Web sites and dozens of retailers across the country now sell surveillance tools, and business has never been better, says Jason Woodside of the International Spy Shop in San Francisco.

“e;People are becoming much more educated today that these products exist,”e; Woodside says. “e;Maybe that’s why sales are up.”e;

The motivation to spy has been around “e;since the beginning of time,”e; says San Francisco private investigator Sam Brown. Now that tools are proliferating, spying is not likely to go away.

“e;Information is like a drug,”e; he says. “e;The more you have, the more you’re going to want.”e;

A lot of citizen spying is “e;really a lot of the old stuff done in a high-tech way,”e; says Michael Nordfelt, co-author ofCyber Spying: Tracking Your Family’s (Sometimes) Secret Online Lives.

Parents who once listened to a child’s phone conversation from another extension or pressed their ears to the door now can install spy software. “e;And it raises a lot of the same ethical questions,”e; Nordfelt says.

But spying is not without risks.

“e;There are two dangers to being an amateur snoop,”e; says futurist Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. “e;The first is, you’ll find out something that you really would have been much happier not knowing. The second is, what happens when the subject finds out that you have been snooping?

“e;My advice is: Think twice before you do it. You may really regret it.”e;

More than he bargained for

Gortarez says he doesn’t regret it, although his spying uncovered more than he ever imagined.

When he purchased a piece of software called SpyRecon on a whim, he had no grander plan than to see what his son, 9, and his nephews and nieces who used his computer were doing online, and why it was so clogged with pop-up ads, spam and other cyberjunk.

The program worked. He quickly discovered the source of his computer woes: The kids were downloading music. But then, he says, he found out something else: that his wife had met a man online with whom she had become romantically involved.

Although she had never met the man in person, Gortarez says, “e;the conversations included a lot of ‘I love you, we will be married soon,’ things like that. It was quite disconcerting.”e;

After a week or so of monitoring conversations, he confronted her. His ex-wife, who has moved across the country and uses a different last name, was contacted by e-mail; she declined to comment for this story.

Finding out the truth “e;saved me a lot of future heartaches,”e; Gortarez says, but he knows that spying is a double-edged sword. He hasn’t decided whether he’ll leave the software installed when he gets into a new relationship.

“e;With people, especially in an intimate relationship, there has to be a trust factor.”e; Still, “e;I would like to know if something is going on that shouldn’t be.”e;

Before the Net, everyday citizens rarely were faced with such dilemmas.

Even the small things that most people take for granted today, like looking up an old high school sweetheart, often meant either heading to the library or hiring an investigator and spending serious cash.

But now, idle curiosity prompts many Net users to nonchalantly do “e;soft surveillance”e; — plugging a name into a search engine to see what turns up.

“e;Everyone does it,”e; says James Hong of San Francisco, founder of online dating and photo-rating Web site Hot or Not. “e;I do it on new employees; I do it if I meet a cute girl, and I want to know more. Maybe I’m crazy, but who doesn’t do it?”e;

Pierce of the privacy group, for one.

“e;I don’t really like the idea of living in a world where I need to have verification of every little thing that you tell me, and where I can Google you and make sure that you did everything you’ve told me is so,”e; she says.

‘Security’ tools to track kids

Other forms of snooping, such as spy software and using hidden “e;nanny cams,”e; aren’t quite as ubiquitous yet, but they pose even greater privacy issues, especially when it comes to kids, experts say.

Many parents are installing computer monitoring software to keep an eye on their children’s online activities. And they are beginning to use new technologies to literally keep track of their kids.

For example, parents can buy GPS-enabled phones and other devices to virtually follow children and teens, especially when they begin driving.

Wherify Wireless of Redwood Shores, Calif., will introduce GPS cell phones ($100-$150) this summer that will allow anyone to be monitored — from people with Alzheimer’s to company employees. Other companies, such as Project Lifesaver International of Chesapeake, Va., specialize in locator devices that use radio technology to track people with Alzheimer’s.

Teen Arrive Alive of Bradenton, Fla., lets parents track teens who have Nextel GPS-enabled phones. Teen Arrive Alive gives parents a program ($19.99 a month) that lets them see the location of the phone via the Internet. If the teen is in a car, parents can see how fast the vehicle is traveling, says spokesman Jack Church, whose son died in a car accident.

But concern for safety should be balanced with trust, UCLA psychology professor Gerald Goodman says. When parents over-watch their kids, “e;we’re telling you that we don’t trust you. And if children are not being trusted, they learn not to trust. There’s a sense that ‘If I’m not trusted, then cheating is more appropriate.’ “e;

Although some monitoring may be appropriate when a child or teen is having serious behavior problems, experts warn that tracking technologies should be used carefully and selectively.

That doesn’t apply only to kids.

“e;It’s changing the rules and the norms of our society,”e; private eye Brown says.

“e;There’s a lot more insecurity because people don’t know if they’re being watched or monitored. They’re more cautious. And therefore there’s a certain amount of paranoia that exists today. Who’s watching me? Little Brother? Big Brother?”e;

The future probably will be even more intense.

“e;It’ll take a while,”e; Saffo predicts. “e;But we’ll be well into it in the next 10 years. Wherever you go, you get to be tracked. And finding privacy is really going to become an oddity.”e;

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