- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2007

Law lags technology. Moral questions take a back seat. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. These are three laws of advancing technology.

Consider the company Spectorsoft, which makes software for spying on people — your kids, your employees, whomever. “Automatically record everything they do on the Internet,” says the banner on the Web site. Spectorsoft has several packages for sale.

Here is the pitch for one of them: “Install EBlaster on the computer you wish to monitor and start receiving copies of every e-mail sent and received on that PC, plus receive complete transcripts of all chat conversations and instant messages that take place on the monitored PC, all sent to your e-mail address.”

The company gives as an example of spying the case in which your daughter sends an e-mail, and you immediately get a copy, and then a copy of the reply.

Then there’s Spector CNE, a program for spying on employees of companies. This software “automatically captures and lets you review your employees’ e-mails sent and received, chat conversations and instant messages, files downloaded, Web sites visited, applications launched and keystrokes typed.” It will also check for certain words and notify you by e-mail alert. Oh, good.

Something is wrong here.

I don’t doubt that the software works. That is its chief defect. I mean, look: Your daughter is working on being grown up. She needs increasing independence; she rates increasing privacy; and she needs to learn to make her own decisions. She’ll make some dumb ones, unless she’s smarter than all the rest of us were. It’s called growing up.

So she writes to her boyfriend, Danny, and gets gushy over how much she loves him this week, and her wretched parents are going to read it? Or she writes a girlfriend about what she did while making out with Danny, or they had an illicit beer, which of course no other child has ever done.

This is another example of substituting technology for morality, or responsible parenthood. If you teach kids how to behave, you don’t have to watch them like Stalin’s police.

Further, if she finds out that you have been reading her embarrassing personal mail, she will hate you, which would be reasonable. Your spying demonstrates beyond doubt that you don’t trust her at all, which is great for familial relations. And there are lots of kids in high school who are perfectly capable of discovering the program, and of blocking it. (Zone Alarm will do it, for example.) The whole business is a bad idea.

As for adults, there are laws against opening other people’s mail. One of them is an old document called the Constitution. There are laws, varying from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, on the tapping and recording of telephone conversations. For example, in Arlington, if I record my daughter’s calls, or anyone else’s, without knowledge of either person speaking, it’s (a cop told me) a felony.

Why is it not everywhere as illegal to intercept e-mail as physical mail? The two serve the same purpose: Communications intended to be private between individuals. Give me one reason why anyone, specifically including the government, should be able to read my e-mail more easily than my snail mail.

As so frequently happens, technology has outrun the law. No doubt some managements find it appealing to watch every keystroke typed by employees. Maybe they need to hire better employees. But where is the limiting principle? Where are the laws saying when citizens cannot be watched, tracked, recorded and spied upon?

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