Personal spy gear: Is it ethical? Is it legal?

By Todd R. Weiss, Computerworld |  Security

The ethical questions

So it's now possible for anyone to spy on others. But is it right?

"Ethically, I think it's a personal decision," Helen Bowser said. "If a mother wants to check on her child, that's for her to decide. If someone wants to judge somebody for buying a camera or buying a voice recorder, they have to put themselves in the other person's shoes. If [your] child or other loved one was in that kind of position, what would you do? You know, you do what you have to do."

EFF attorney Tien said gadgets like these can be used ethically -- or not.

It's one thing when such tracking data is collected with your implied consent, such as when you sign up to use an EZ-Pass transponder in your vehicle to automatically pay tolls on highways and bridges across the eastern U.S., Tien said. "But once you start thinking about where you are in your everyday life and [how such data reveals where you are and] when you are there, it's actually a pretty revealing thing."

If a parent wants to use a GPS device to ensure their teen driver's safety and tells the teen that the device is being used in the vehicle, then that can "help keep an honest person honest," Tien said. But if a user wants to track another person for another reason in a secret way, then that's perhaps an unethical use. "It's still a control thing to do. It's certainly not something I'd do to my kids. We have a trusting relationship."

He added that the ethical issues are much different if you do that to someone without their consent, especially when it occurs on private property versus in a public place. "If it's in your own home, a security system, and you're the one who has access to it and others don't, you are in control." To be ethical about it, you should let visitors know that they are subject to being videotaped or monitored while in your home.

How safe is the info?

A related issue that few parents think about, Tien said, is that if you use a GPS device to track your child, that data -- their whereabouts and other information -- is now available to whatever company collects it. That could put your children at risk from unscrupulous companies. "You really want to think about how long do [the GPS vendors and their partners] keep the data and who else can see it," he said.

If a company collected this type of data about a celebrity, an unscrupulous worker could look up data and release the information for monetary gain to the media, Tien added. "That's human nature; no one should be surprised by it. But we've got to realize when we're creating this kind of data that there are people who are going to be interested in looking at it. And there are others who can gain access illegally."

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