Can it be only eight years since Howard Rheingolds The Virtual Community described the Internet as a place where people could develop and support virtual communities of shared interests and concerns? Where, in the privacy of their homes, people could form a new kind of friendship not hinged on geography? This heady utopian vision drew millions of people — myself included — to the Internet.
Which is why I had such a negative reaction to a spam e-mail I recently received from a company called IDetect, offering the very antithesis of a democratic, private vision of the Net.
"Now you can learn EVERYTHING about your friends, neighbors, enemies, employees, co-workers, your boss, even yourself!" the e-mail darkly promised. "Is there someone online that you want to find out more about? . . . Now you can investigate anyone secretly, and in the privacy of your home. . . . See and record every word typed in: E-mails, Private Messages, Chat Rooms, Message Boards, ICQ and IRC. . . . Just send $29.99."
The conclusion of the e-mail offered this disclaimer: "After purchasing our program, we are not responsible for your use of it."
Since I wasnt eager to share my credit-card information with this shady operations vCash purchasing system in Tujunga, Calif. — and since IDetect isnt listed in the phone book — I was unable to learn more about this product or the company that sells it.
The maker of a similar program, Internet Investigator, claims that its software enables a user to "Investigate ANYTHING and ANYONE" — emphasis is the companys — and it goes on to trumpet potential uses: "Screen prospective employees — before you hire them; check their credit, driving or criminal records. Verify income or educational accomplishments. Track down people who owe you money and find hidden assets. . . . Check out your daughters new boyfriend. . . . Find Wanted FUGITIVES — maybe your secretive neighbor."
Where is Internet Investigator? Who is the president, chief executive, chief technology officer or vice president of sales and marketing? No names, addresses or phone numbers are listed. The site is hosted, at no charge, by Bizland.com, which offers small business free and for-pay Web hosting. Bizland wouldnt tell me how to reach Internet Investigator. That was a matter of privacy, I was told, with no apparent sense of irony.
But Seriously, Folks
If IDetect and Internet Investigator are the Daewoos of computer investigation software and services, the Rolls-Royce might be Raytheons Silent Runner, a real-time computer network monitoring program designed to detect — and alert network managers to — suspicious activity anywhere on a network.
Raytheon markets Silent Runner as a "passive tool" that can monitor how data move around, and detect if an internal computer is receiving information it should not be getting. Best of all, nobody but the bosses and the systems administrators know theyre being spied on.
But that begs a question: Why keep the program secret from the employees? Like cops in uniforms and easily identifiable police cruisers, wouldnt informing employees that their activities were being monitored serve as a deterrent? Not if your goal is employee entrapment.
"We do have a customer who has indicated to us that they are doing in excess of 10 prosecutions a week as a result of information that they are dealing with within a financial institution," said Jeff Waxman, the companys vice president of information assurance products. Not surprisingly, Waxman refused to divulge the name of this customer.
Maybe the real suspect here should be the mysterious Company Xs human resources department, which is apparently so inept that it hires 520 or more employees per year who are corrupt and stupid enough to get caught committing, not just violations of company rules, but criminal acts worthy of prosecution.
Progress and Privacy
These programs might seem like tempests in a teacup to some. But the gamut of computer surveillance products — from third-rate but easily obtained software such as IDetect and Internet Investigator to high-power, big-ticket products such as Silent Runner — represents an incremental deterioration in what little privacy we still enjoy.
If one accepts that the Internet is an ever more relevant microcosm of society, where wildly different visions of progress and community are debated and sometimes realized — then there are urgent and far- reaching questions posed by the struggle between advocates for Internet privacy and those who seek to abridge that privacy. Why do we need monitoring? Who would we want monitoring us? Perhaps most important: Who gets to have privacy?
These are tough questions, and good people disagree over the answers. But privacy isnt a right that exists solely for abuse and exploitation by criminals, terrorists and pedophiles. Its the right to keep nosy people out of your credit and medical records. Its the right to read what you want to, without wondering if someone is spying on you or gathering your information for a targeted marketing campaign. Its the right to have employers judge their employees by job performance and not, within reasonable limits, by what sites they browse on their lunch hour or during a lull in their workload.
In the simplest terms, probably the most basic right we have is the right to be left alone. But time has not been kind to that notion. The growing chasm between early visions of the Internets potential by people like Rheingold — essentially rooted in trust — and the emerging vision embodied by Silent Runner, IDetect, Internet Investigator and software of similar ilk suggests to me that weve come a long way, baby — but sadly in the wrong direction.
Lewis Z. Koch has been an investigative reporter for more than 30 years. Currently, he is a special correspondent at CyberWire Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.