Software Snags Crooks, Sneaking Spouses, but Alarms Privacy Advocates

Right now, your boss, your spouse or the government could secretly be reading your every typed word — even the ones you deleted — while surreptitiously snapping your picture.

Sound alarming? The man who makes it possible is the first to agree.

"It's horrifying!" said Richard Eaton, who develops, markets and even answers the technical help line for WinWhatWhere Corp. software in Kennewick.

"I'm Mr. Guard-My-Privacy, so it's kind of ironic," said Eaton, a lanky 48-year-old with a diamond stud earring. "Every time I add a feature into it, usually it's something that I've fought for a long time."

His qualms haven't stopped him from selling the product, though — more than 200,000 copies of it, to everyone from the suspicious spouse to the FBI.

And he is building ever-more-detailed monitoring tricks into his Investigator software. The latest version, released this month, can snap pictures from a WebCam, save screen shots and read keystrokes in multiple languages.

Investigator already can read every e-mail, instant message and document you send and receive, even if you delete — or never even saved — what you typed.

The $99 downloadable program is hidden, changing names every so often, and the information it gathers is stored in files given arbitrary old dates.

The monitor can choose to have a user's every move sent to an e-mail address, or the program can be instructed to look for key words like "boss," "pornography" or "terrorist" and only send records when it finds those prompts.

Software like Investigator was virtually unknown two years ago, but now it's become a lucrative niche market, attracting plenty of competitors and at least one product that aims to track down the snooping software itself.

Federal investigators in Seattle used Investigator to snag suspected Russian computer hackers, one of whom was recently convicted on 20 counts of conspiracy, various computer crimes and fraud. Another, similar product was used in the FBI's investigation of alleged mobster Nicodemo Scarfo Jr.

A Maywood, N.J., security firm called Corporate Defense Strategies used Investigator to snare two employees of an import/export firm who were selling company merchandise and pocketing the cash. CDS President Jeff Prusan has since used it to help clients catch employees sending resumes, downloading pornography or spending their shifts playing games.

"It's unfortunate that it has come to this, but I've always believed that it's better to know what's going on than not to know what's going on," Prusan said.

Miki Compson, a computer consultant and mother of four in Severn, Md., used it to track computer correspondence from a suspicious guy who she said ended up stalking her daughter.

She's recommended it to other parents whose kids were corresponding with adults and defends the practice as a safety measure.

"I think of the worst-case scenario and I know that that could happen," she said.

Eaton says he wouldn't likely use it on his own two children — "I'd talk to them!" — but he also doesn't feel comfortable legislating what people do with his invention. And although he hates to hear what spouses have found out in the fast-growing market of tracking their loved ones online, he wouldn't tell them not to do it.

"I'm selling a hammer," he said. "They can beat nails with it, or their dog."

If someone calls with proof the software is being used illegitimately, he said he'll show the person how to remove it.

Ari Schwartz, associate director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said he can see some legitimate uses for the product, such as catching employees engaging in fraud or child pornography.

But he recommends that employers tell their staff that they are monitoring for certain activities, and urges spouses and parents to think about the repercussions before they try it at home.

"If your relationship is at the point where you feel that you need to spy on your spouse, is this the best way to repair your relationship or perhaps (should) you be going to therapy?" he said.

But in most cases, Schwartz said snooping software is not illegal.

"Under current law I would say basically that there are no legal issues there," he said. "We think morally there are some very large issues with (employers) tracking the personal habits of their employees."

A self-taught computer programmer who says he barely graduated from high school, Eaton stumbled on the idea for Investigator when he wrote a tracker program to help him find and repair software bugs. He started selling it as a snooper product around 1997.

Eaton still runs the company much like he did five years ago — from his Eastern Washington home, with his wife handling the bookkeeping while he burns the CDs, answers the help line and runs the Web site.

Occasionally, Eaton also checks his own Investigator logs — and is always disturbed by the amount of time he spends online.

"When I look at my logs during the day, I think I need to fire myself," he said.