SPYWARE FIRM SpectorSoft Corp. which makes eBlaster, is hardly a stranger to controversy. But the new e-mail monitoring technology, which company
president Doug Fowler described as ìalmost a wiretap,î is sure to stir even more.
Itís common for office workers to keep personal matters out of corporate e-mail; many set up free Web-based e-mail accounts at Hotmail or Yahoo to
help separate work and private affairs. But eBlaster 3.0, released Wednesday by SpectorSoft, makes it easy for employers or other interested voyeurs
to read all e-mail going in and out of almost any kind of e-mail account.
ìWhat our customers have asked for more than anything is the ability to capture e-mails, specifically Web-based e-mails like Hotmail,î Fowler said.
ìWe knew thatís what our people wanted.î
Fowler wouldnít describe particulars about how the technology worked, but said essentially that the moment a spy subject sends or receives an e-mail,
a copy of the correspondence is forwarded to the spy. As an example, SpectorSoft public relationships representative Kasey Sellati showed MSNBC.com a
note that was written by her daughter at home and forwarded to Sellatiís work e-mail.
ìMrs. LaFrance,î Shay Sellatiís note to a teacher read. ìHi, this is Shay. I was just wondering if youíll be in your room tomorrow morning. Iím going
to come on Thursday, but I just wanted to see if I could get help tomorrow also for the test on Thursday. Thanks!î
eBlaster also works on POP3 accounts, used by many Internet Service Providers, AOL e-mail, and Microsoft Exchange e-mail systems.
ìIt works on virtually any kind of email, except for some of the smaller Web-based e-mail services,î Fowler said.
Fowler said the software would be useful for parents who want to watch their childrenís e-mail activity in the early afternoon hours, when children
are home from school but parents are still at work. Law enforcement agencies are also interested, he said ó Web-based e-mail like Hotmail was used
extensively by the hijackers who planned the Sept. 11 attacks, sometimes in public libraries.
ìIf our software had been installed in that library it would have recorded that Hotmail,î he said.
But word of the softwareís new feature disturbed privacy advocate Richard Smith of ComputerBytesMan.com ó and he suggested potential users think twice
before installing the software,
ìThis is e-mail wiretapping,î Smith said. ìI would put up a big warning flag. Anybody who would consider buying this product should check with a
lawyer first. There is a high probability it runs afoul of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. I would not take the companyís word that itís
legal.î Enacted in 1986, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act prohibits interception and disclosure of wire, oral, or electronic communications
in most cases.
Spyware like that produced by SpectorSoft and competitor WinWhatWhere Corp. has not yet faced a definitive courtroom test. But David Sobel, general
counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, equated private Web-based e-mail account with an employee receiving a personal letter through
the company mailroom. The contents of such a letter are protected by U.S. mail regulations.
ìThe question is: Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy? I would argue that if a company.com account is provided to me for company business, I
can assume it might be subject to monitoring ... but if I take additional step to set up a Hotmail account that I occasionally access from my desktop
at work, I think that could be construed as an expression of an expectation of privacy.î
Nevertheless, the spyware makers generally argue that employers have the right to observe anything that happens on company-owned computers.
ìThereís no question thereís a controversial aspect to all this,î Fowler said. ìMy advice to (employees): anything they are doing using company
computers they should expect the employer may have a way to find out whatís going on there.î Fowler said his firm regularly advises customers to
inform employees that all their activity is being monitored.
But Richard Eaton, president of competitor WinWhatWhere, has regularly accused SpectorSoft of targeting the ìsuspicious husbands and wivesî market ó
where the software is used secretly to catch a potentially cheating spouse in the act. That kind of surreptitious e-mail monitoring would be more
likely to run afoul of wiretap laws. But even in that case, Sobel said, wiretap laws are ìvery technology specific,î and a judge wouldnít be able to
rule on the legality of the software without knowing exact particulars about how the technology works. SpectorSoft would only provide a general sketch
of its e-mail forwarding technology. So the legal status of eBlaster wonít be determined until ìsomeone sues,î Sobel said.
In the meantime, Eaton argues this is much ado about nothing. For years, he said, products like WinWhatWhere have been able to capture every keystroke
a user types at a computer, or take screen shots at regular interval of everything a computer user does. That would include logging Web-based e-mail
ìWhoop-de-do,î Eaton said when told about eBlasterís new feature. ìThey are forwarding (the e-mail) on immediately. Ours shows up in the report you
get every day, or every hour, however often you want it.î