ComputerCOP software, a parental monitoring application that long has been recommended and distributed by law enforcement agencies, is little more than spyware with significant potential for abuse, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported Wednesday.
The software includes a keylogger that could expose a family’s personal information by transmitting what’s typed to third-party servers without encryption, the EFF said.
“That means many versions of ComputerCOP leave children — and their parents, guests, friends and anyone using the affected computer — exposed to the same predators, identity thieves and bullies that police claim the software protects against,” explained Dave Maass, an investigative researcher and author of the EFF report.
The tool also could be abused by people who want to spy on adults, Maass said.
Some 245 agencies in more than 35 states have used public funds to purchase and distribute ComputerCOP, noted the EFF.
Following is a compilation of ComputerCOP promotional videos:
The foundation also uncovered fraudulent endorsements in ComputerCOP’s marketing materials, it said.
A guide to removing ComputerCOP is now available on the EFF website.
The Dark Side of Parental Controls
“Products such as ComputerCOP claim to give parents the solution to gathering the information they want on their kids’ activities,” but they can have a dark side, technology attorney Raymond Van Dyke told TechNewsWorld.
“Gathering keystrokes is one way to garner this information, but ComputerCOP has the computer in question transmit those keystrokes to their server, where the keystrokes are parsed for prohibited communications, which are flagged and relayed back for parental perusal,” Van Dyke explained. “Alas, this transmission of keystrokes is unguarded — i.e., unencrypted or otherwise protected from prying eyes.”
Although children have “a reduced expectation of privacy in the home, this and other spyware does not discriminate between users, and all information is subject to unwanted third-party viewing and the potential for abuse,” he pointed out.
“There is also the danger or threat that government agencies advocating this deficient data collection technique may themselves utilize the information somehow, raising Big Brother concerns,” Van Dyke warned.
ComputerCOP disputes most of the assertions made in the EFF’s report.
“A lot of their claims are misleading — there are no problems,” Stephen DelGiorno, ComputerCOP’s president and CEO, told TechNewsWorld.
The software is not a spy tool, he insisted. “It doesn’t automatically install any keystroke capture, and it doesn’t automatically start sending out any emails.”
The keylogger must be installed separately, and it’s a very limited and watered-down version, he noted.
“It captures only the keywords entered by the parent or guardian and a small subset of words from the product’s keyword library, such as ‘meet me,'” DelGiorno explained. “It does not capture every keystroke.”
No Tracking Information
Parents could run the software without ever installing the keylogger. If they do choose to install it, they’re presented with a warning that it should not be used on anyone over 18, he added.
A siren icon is displayed by default in the computer’s system tray, advising the user that the keylogger is in place.
As for spying concerns, “there is no database collection or servers with stored information for third-party spying,” DelGiorno emphasized. “ComputerCOP Software or distributing agencies have no database, no phone numbers, no emails, no tracking information, or knowledge of any parents using ComputerCOP software.”
Proceed With Caution
Aside from the EFF’s concerns, parents should think twice before using software that allows them to operate “in stealth mode,” Larry Magid, codirector of ConnectSafely and founder of SafeKids.com, told TechNewsWorld.
“It builds mistrust, and suddenly the conversation becomes, ‘how dare you spy on me?'” Magid said.
In some countries it would be illegal to use such software because it would be considered a violation of kids’ privacy, he added.
Instead, parents should have frequent conversations with their children and ask them about what they do online, Magid suggested.
“For most parents, regular conversations are adequate,” he said. “Trust them unless they give you a reason to do otherwise.”
When monitoring software seems to be needed, parents should tell their child that they’re using it, he advised. “Otherwise, you’re role-modeling spyware yourself.”