You might associate spies with James Bond or the cold war years, but in the internet age, spying is on the rebound. Spying on the world wide web is moe business-like than you might imagine. No desperate race against the clock to save the world from destruction....just little instances of "eavesdropping" that erode your privacy, bit-by-bit. You innocently log on, surfing the Web, maybe doing a little online shopping. But watch out...someone, or rather something may be watching you. "The potential for this to do damage to people's lives and disrupt their families is great enough that, uh, people have to know about it," says Robert Ellis Smith, of the Privacy Journal. But most of us don't know about Spyware: secret programs, hidden in some popular software, which order your computer to spy on you. "It's a very severe invasion of privacy," claims Smith. Here's how it works. You simply download the software online. The spy program plants intself in your hard-drive and then starts snooping. It can monitor which web sites you visit, what you buy online, what ads you click on. The information is automatically sent back to the software provider. "I was pretty upset at the time," says Richard Smith, a Spyware victim. Computer expert Richard Smith discovered his P-C was spying on him. It even dug up information about a plane ticket he bought for his 14-year-old daughter. "It just shows you sort of the danger her of, of when companies build software that listen in too much," says Smith. Privacy advocates are furious. They say spyware is already embedded in 40-million people's computers. "It's outrageous that there is a potential to gather a lot of sensitive, negative information... embarrassing information about people," says Smith. Information that Robert Ellis Smith worries could be sent to your boss, your insurance company, even your spouse. "We already know that there are a lot of unscrupulous websites and they may well subscribe to some of these services, take this information and exploit the information," says Smith. The Federal Trade Commission says people should be worried; that computer spying could lead to all kinds of dangers, including identity theft, and our kids are at risk, too. "There have been reports that personal information has been obtained about children and used by people to commit crimes by pedophiles and others," says Joel Winston, of the FTC. Hundreds of online companies use spyware, and defend it. The company 'Radiate' uses the technology to track how many people click on it's ads. Marketing VP Jeff Ready says Radiate isn't interested in spying on anybody. "Our technology doesn't, you know, go down that path at all. It's simply a matter of keeping track of who sees the ads, how many times the ad is seen and who responds to it," claims Ready. But critics say even that crosses the privacy line. So, how can you tell if your computer is spying on you? "Unless you have the comcputer expertise, it's very difficult to know that," claims Winston. The FTC wants congress to pass a law requiring software makers to clearly alert users when theie product contains spyware, and to give people the power to opt out. "When we have somebody come into our house, we don't want them to be going through our drawers -- and the same with software. When we invite software into our house, we kind of don't want them poking around in our lives," adds Smith. There's not much you can do right now to protect yourself. Some experts have simply stopped downloading software online. Richard Smith has also filed a complaint with the FTC. Some companies already alert users when their software contains this technology, but the FTC says those alerts are often hard to find because they're hidden deep inside the privacy policies.
Update to this story: a number of Heartland businesses dealing with computers e-mailed us to refer us to freeware downloads on the internet where anti-spyware programs are available. Check out the following websites: