The Upside of Spyware

By Matthew Hines  |  Posted 2008-09-12 Print this article Print

It's not often that you might associate spyware with a positive situation, as typically the programs' impact involves data theft, cyber-stalking or at best password theft and online account hijacking of some sort.

However, a case reported by local papers in the United Kingdom Sept. 9 illustrates how sometimes spyware programs can produce beneficial results, in particular when used to protect the interests of minors and implanted on the machines the children use by their own parents.

There's been a lot of controversy in recent years about the use of spyware-like tracking programs on cell phones or on vehicles by parents concerned with keeping tabs on their kids. In many anti-spyware research groups the programs have received particularly harsh scrutiny for their use by stalkers or abusive spouses.

But, according to the U.K. story, first reported by the GetBracknell news site, one dad who had downloaded a spyware-like tracking program onto his teenage daughter's computer discovered exactly what he likely hoped he never would.

After his daughter had undergone a noticeable change in behavior, becoming "withdrawn" and unresponsive to his attempts to communicate, he found, using the program, that she was dating an adult man, 38, and engaging in sexual activity that was illegal based on her young age.

As a result, the involved man, Nicholas Lovell, was found guilty of five charges of sexual abuse of a child in a U.K. court.

The WebWatcher program used in the situation was able to produce e-mails and IMs that Lovell had sent to the girl, whose parents decided to use the software after they discovered that she was lying to them about her whereabouts.

According to the father, the daughter is relieved to be past the incident and now realizes that the relationship was not appropriate and was harmful to her overall state of mind.

As a security wonk, I've long been of the opinion that the use of any secret spyware programs is unethical, unnecessary and abuse in and of itself.

Yet, as a parent, I have to admit that in this case it would seem that the application proved its worth and helped put an end to a scenario that turns my stomach far worse than any philosophical issue that I have with some of these more legitimate spyware programs.

It's always tricky to apply situational ethics to these types of touchy subjects.

But it's hard to argue that in this case spyware proved itself a useful technology.

Anyone reading this disagree?

Matt Hines has been following the IT industry for over a decade as a reporter and blogger, and has been specifically focused on the security space since 2003, including a previous stint writing for eWEEK and contributing to the Security Watch blog. Hines is currently employed as marketing communications manager at Core Security Technologies, a Boston-based maker of security testing software. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Core Security, and neither the company, nor its products and services will be actively discussed in the blog. Please send news, research or tips to |

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