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Cops are spending thousands of dollars to distribute spyware to parents

Richard Lewisohn

It's standard advice that parents should monitor what their young children do online. For many parents, that means having the computer in a public area so they can see what's on the screen as their kids surf the web. But some police departments are pushing a far more intrusive option: installing spyware on your computer to monitor every single keystroke your children make.

An investigation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation has found that dozens of police departments around the country are distributing software called ComputerCOP. The software has two features. One is a search engine that lets parents search a computer's hard drive for pornographic images as well as files relating to sensitive subjects such as drugs and violence. But the other is a keylogger, a program that records every key typed and sends it to a third-party server.

ComputerCOP creates different editions of its software for each police department. Here is the packaging for the software distributed in Maricopa County in Arizona. (Maricopa County Attorney's Office / Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Police departments pay a few dollars per copy to ComputerCOP, and in return they get the software in customized packaging that prominently features the department that paid for the software. These law enforcement agencies then distribute the software for free to families in their communities. Some departments have bought thousands of copies of the software.

Even if you're not creeped out by parents spying on their kids like this, there are some practical problems with ComputerCOP. For one thing, the keystrokes are sent over the internet unencrypted. That means that if hackers are snooping on your internet connection, they could intercept any personal information children might type, such as passwords.

Second, as the EFF points out, "ComputerCOP does not have the ability to distinguish between children and adults." That means the software is "giving recipients the tools to spy on other adults who use a shared computer, such as spouses, roommates, and coworkers." And spying on adults in this manner is not only unethical, it may also be illegal.

Finally, EFF says that ComputerCOP's marketing for the software is deceptive. ComputerCOP claimed that the software was endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union. But the ACLU denies that it has ever endorsed the company's products, and ComputerCOP was not able to produce evidence of the endorsement. The closest thing ComputerCOP could produce was a 2005 article in the Detroit Free Press in which an ACLU spokesperson endorsed the general concept of parents monitoring their children's internet use.

"I can say unequivocally that it was not an endorsement of the product," a Michigan ACLU spokeswoman told the EFF, when asked about the article.

The Treasury Department has also sent out a fraud alert that ComputerCOP was distributing what the department called a "falsified letter" from Treasury endorsing ComputerCOP. According to EFF, the letter was based on a 2001 opinion from the Treasury department, but ComputerCOP doctored the letter to remove the date and imply that the Treasury Department is endorsing the current version of the software 13 years later. "Neither the Treasury nor the Treasury Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture endorses this or any other particular product," the Treasury Department says.

You can click here to find out if police departments in your state are distributing ComputerCOP.

ComputerCOP did not respond to a call and email seeking comment.

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