"I'm not doing anything wrong, believe me," she'd said for weeks. But he didn't buy it.
He'd read her e-mail, listened in on her phone conversations. He wanted the chats, too. Fifty bucks bought him software to slip into the family computer and secretly record his wife's every move, like a leprechaun crouching amid the circuit boards with a tiny camera.
At 5 a.m., when she's sleeping upstairs, he ventures onto the computer. Starts up the new software and finds a series of black-and-white snapshots taken of the screen while she was online -- her every come-on, every flirtation, every misspelling is saved. The correspondent is some guy elsewhere in Nebraska and the talk is not just flirting but, you know, graphic -- and Greg Young begins to cry.
But he doesn't confront her, not then. For a month he watches her, dropping hints here and there. For the longest time, she can't figure out how he knows so much. By the time she does, well, it really doesn't matter. The marriage is over.
Chat rooms are not like spoken-word conversations, though they're informal and instant and lend themselves to impulsive declarations -- no, chat rooms are not ephemeral like the breath and vibration that comes from our mouths and fades on the air.
This is a cautionary story about the permanence of the online word.
It's somewhat like the flap over Carnivore, the software that allows the FBI to monitor e-mail -- except the software we're talking about is arguably more menacing. Because it's cheap. Because its legality hasn't been questioned. Because it can be on your own computer, without your knowledge. And because it's become the instrument for the most insecure of people: jealous lovers.
Greg Young discovered it after 22 years of marriage to Rita Young, and now the two are nearing a painful divorce settlement. Rita, 46, has found her own place in Beatrice, Neb. Greg, also 46, cares for their two sons in Grand Island, Neb., and tells people about this software that will monitor your spouse online.
"If you can't get the truth, you gotta do something," he says.
Spector is made by a company based in Vero Beach, Fla., which Young happened to find in his online searches. He could have found a host of other software to do the same thing: WinWhatWhere Investigator, Desktop Surveillance, Cyber Snoop, 007 Stealth Activity Monitor. Tens of companies publish computer monitoring software for the home, many also making a similar product for the workplace.
Companies like Spectorsoft, which makes Spector, intended their home versions for parents concerned over their children's online adventures. But six months after Spector was launched in early 1999, a wronged fiancee e-mailed to say Thank you, Spector! for nabbing her significant other having cyber-sex.
Perhaps it's unsurprising that Spector easily found its way to cyber-cuckolds. Its weapon is omniscience: Operating like a quick-clicking camera, it takes a picture every few seconds of whatever is on the screen. The pictures play back in slideshow fashion, like a herky-jerky '20s film.
Spector also can record every raw keystroke, every syllable and space, even if the person immediately deletes them. Want to find your husband's password so you can root around in his e-mail? This will do.
After that first letter, the testimonials kept coming. The fledgling company started posting banner ads and counting the traffic.
"The 'Spouse cheating? Find out with this' was getting four times the click-through rate that the other ads were getting," says company President Doug Fowler, who claims it's selling about 10 times what it was a year ago -- more than 7,000 sales overall. The company recently released a new program, eBlaster, that makes remote snooping possible. The snooper needs access to the subject's PC just once, to install the software. After that, eBlaster automatically e-mails reports of everything done on the computer.
Thirty-one percent of people considered "Internet-addicted" (a small minority) and 13 percent of all other Internet users progress from cyber-flirtations to actual sex, according to a 1999 study of 18,000 people conducted by David Greenfield, who heads the Center for Internet Studies in West Hartford, Conn.
So far, Spectorsoft is one of the few to actively target spouses for its home product, but at least seven other companies that make home monitoring software have experienced the phenomenon. The creator of one monitoring product intended to protect children, called Prudence, even stopped promoting his software in part because he discovered people were using it to watch their spouses. On sites devoted to discussing adultery, message boards flurry with recommendations for this or that brand. Private investigators use the software in adultery cases.
"We have a whole network of private investigators that resell Desktop Surveillance personal edition, and I'd say probably 95 percent of the clientele that purchase this product from them are suspecting spouses," says Julie Allen, director of product development for Tech Assist, a Clearwater, Fla., company that distributes Desktop. "Then they call you back hysterically crying and in need of psychological counseling."
Like other software of its kind, Spector can be installed overtly or in stealth mode, and like that of other companies, Spectorsoft's official line is that consumers should tell spouses and children they're installing it. But the company's Web site proposes something else in big, multicolored letters: "Secretly record everything your spouse, children & employees do online."
Whether this software violates state or federal wiretapping laws is simply not clear. Spokesmen for the U.S. Justice Department have never seen cases involving the software. Internet lawyers have not seen any suits.
"It's not wiretapping in any traditional sense," says Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer in Massachusetts. "The question does become whether wiretapping laws can be stretched to cover this."
The stretch may be difficult, as one case in Maryland about five years ago suggests. Divorce lawyer Bryan Renehan persuaded a judge to admit the documents his client obtained by installing a homemade keystroke monitor to record his wife. By admitting the evidence, Renehan says, the judge effectively ruled that the monitoring did not amount to a wiretap.
As much as the clandestine nature of such programs worries privacy experts and infuriates those who've been spied on, it's also a selling point. The secrecy let Greg Young know his wife was going to meet a man in Missouri he says she met over the Internet. That was the final straw. Now, he waits for a judge to settle the divorce. Now, Rita Young gets a call from a reporter who wants to know what she thinks of this software.
She has little to say. In single syllables, she confirms the basic outline of her estranged husband's account. Yes, she chatted a lot. No, she doesn't deny she flirted. She never cheated, though, she says, and the man she met in Missouri was a friend.
What do you think of the technology that infiltrates your home, that makes chat rooms so enticing, that makes temptation so immediate? Do you ever wish the Internet hadn't entered your life?
"Yes I do," Rita Young says, and does not elaborate.
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