Any paranoia you have about the government and big corporations spying on you is well-founded. Thanks to Edward Snowden we now know the NSA surveils virtually every move we make on the internet. Google, Facebook and Amazon have never pretended they don’t do the same.
But perhaps you should be more worried about the people you don’t know are gathering information on you, such as your boss, co-workers and spouse. As the cost of the technology falls, its sophistication has risen, and over the past few years an industry of products and services has arrived to make it a snap for ordinary folks to spy on one another.
Almost every cell phone carrier uses GPS to track the location of all phones on a particular plan, allowing you to keep an eye on your family members’ movements. For less than your cable-TV bill, you can buy a spyware program to install on, say, your wife’s laptop that will enable you to secretly see every e-mail, instant message, photo and website that crosses her screen. You can even surreptitiously activate her phone’s microphone and camera to hear and see what’s going on around her. Or if you really want solid proof of infidelity, consider investing in a SemenSpy home forensics kit to identify those strange stains on the bedsheets.
Employers have long monitored workers’ phone records, e-mails and web trails. Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg and other companies also use programs that scan employee messages for profanity or other suspect verbiage. The Supreme Court has ruled that government employers can read their employees’ private text messages if they’re on an agency-issued phone. Meanwhile, Hitachi and others are rolling out systems that use sensors embedded in employee name tags to track movement and interactions.
Parents can monitor their kids in even more invasive detail. Concerned about little Erica’s oral hygiene? Get her a Bluetooth-equipped Kolibree toothbrush, which records how long she brushes and transmits that data to your smartphone. Not sure young Tony is eating right at school? Get him a MySchoolBucks card, which he can use to buy cafeteria food while letting you know exactly what he’s ordering. Parents with more serious concerns about their children’s health can enlist a Teddy the Guardian stuffed bear: Every time your kid holds the bear’s paw, sensors record his or her heart rate, body temperature and other vital signs.
And if it isn’t enough to worry about everyone in your life, imagine all the strangers who might be watching you right now. A California college student was recently sent to federal prison for using a $40 software program called Blackshades to hack into the personal computers of a dozen women, hijack their webcams and snap nude photos.
There are laws to protect your digital privacy, but they’re about as effective as those for marijuana. Veteran privacy lawyer Ted Claypoole says that if you own a device, you’re generally free to do with it as you please, regardless of who uses it. That means parents can legally install spyware on their teens’ iPhones, as can employers on company-owned laptops and phones. It is a federal crime to access someone else’s device without their consent, but outside of industrial espionage, says Claypoole, prosecutions are rare.
Retina-X Studios, a commercial spyware company, markets Mobile Spy software primarily as a way for worried parents to keep tabs on their kids, and company spokesperson Craig Thompson says that’s what most customers use it for. The company’s website warns that “it is a federal and state offense…to install monitoring/surveillance software onto a phone which you do not own or have proper authorization to install.” But Retina-X Studios doesn’t do much to make sure its customers follow the law. “It’s an honor system,” says Thompson. “It’s like buying a gun.” Hopefully you won’t use the spyware to commit a crime, but if you do, well, that’s not the manufacturer’s fault.
And if you don’t want to do the job yourself, plenty of hackers for hire will do it for you. Federal prosecutors recently shut down one Arkansas-based outfit that illegally obtained thousands of e-mail passwords for customers who wanted to see if their spouses were cheating. Basic googling, however, will find you plenty of others offering similar services.
It’s clear we’re approaching a world in which it will be close to impossible to have secrets—not just from authorities but also from one another.
That sounds horrible, and it is, in many, many ways. However, consider the case of the wife of Gilberto Valle, New York’s “cannibal cop.” Concerned about her husband’s strange behavior, she planted spyware on her laptop, which led to the disquieting discovery that he repeatedly wrote about killing and eating her. It’s an extreme example but one that points out how surveillance may have advantages, if only because we often know less about those we love than we like to think.
Being exposed to everyone in our lives—subjected to “omniveillance”—may force us to become a more honest and open society. Which raises the question: How honest and open do we want our society to be? Criminologists tell us increasing the severity of punishment doesn’t deter crime, but increasing the chances of getting caught does. By that logic, omniveillance should make committing interpersonal emotional crimes such as infidelity much harder. Ditto for suicide: If you’ve been researching ways to kill yourself, parents or friends could find out.
Maybe you wouldn’t spy like this on your boyfriend or co-worker. Maybe you believe that those closest to you wouldn’t either. But they can. And as everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to the cannibal cop will tell you, it takes only one snoop into your digital life to expose your secrets to the world. If you don’t take it for granted that everything you say, do and watch online can be made visible, you’re living in denial. A world of omniveillance isn’t necessarily one we would want or should choose, but at this point we probably don’t have a choice. It’s already here.