Spyware Horror Story: Do you know your hacker?

When does the use of monitoring software give way to domestic abuse?

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Suspicious figure

It's tempting to jam criminal hackers into a safe, distant profile. To assume the creep helping themselves to your e-mail, bank account, and surf history is a smug, slaphappy youth, or conniving foreign national. But what if you discovered that the one spying on your life was someone much, much closer?

How close? Like a parent, spouse, roommate, or significant other.

This is the topic of today's meeting in Washington. The Anti-Spyware Coalition gathered with representatives from McAfee and Google, to discuss the extent to which spyware abuse also constitutes domestic abuse.

Anna Stepanov, the Anti-Spyware program manager at McAfee Avert Labs, said surveillance is an indispensable tool to an abuser's material and psychological advantage over the victim.

Stepanov writes in a report (PDF), that "the use of spyware is ideal for abusers, who often feel the need to control all aspects of a victim's existence. Monitoring a victim's online, cell phone, or general computing activity is of more value than ever in controlling or hurting a victim."

It is a controversial topic, parents "spy" on kids, but we call it parental protection. Jealous spouses and significant others peek into in-boxes and cell phone texts and it's deemed a minor, or perhaps even warranted, transgression. Corporations have even been known to spy on reporters (but that one's a clear no-no.)

Where does one draw the line between the minor abuse of a suspecting spouse logging on to an e-mail account and the major personal and psychological trespass attendant to domestic abuse? While monitoring software is legal, and indeed, hosted on CNET Download.com, it's clearly not always used to keep children from peeping adult sites before they come of age. A clearer answer may well develop from today's or future meetings, but in the meantime, let us get your opinion.

Should definitions of domestic abuse include legal as well as illegal surveillance software? Are there acceptable limits to this? Share your views in the comments below.

Via Defense in Depth.

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About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.