As I go about my daily business, one of the most common questions I get asked is “So, where do you work?” My response is generally something along the lines of “Well, I work at Covenant Eyes, a local software company, as their web developer.” This gets smiles, nods, glazed eyes, and invariably, the follow up question — “What does the software do?” The answer is a tough one. In order to help say what we do, I generally say, “We make computer software that monitors where you go on the internet and then it emails a report to someone you trust to hold you accountable.”
Then I get the golden response from computer literate individuals — “Oh! You write spyware!”
As a computer nerd this gets hard for me to stomach. I despise spyware. I detest the adware, viruses, and general malware that people install unwittingly on their machines. It’s part of why I took up programming, because dealing with the latest trojan horse just simply took up too much of my time and energy.
So why does a guy who is so vehemently against spyware and related applications work for a company that writes, in essence, internet monitoring software? The answer is simple.
Technology in and of itself is morally and ethically neutral. A hammer can be used to build a beautiful building, or it can be used to cause intense pain, discomfort, and even death. At its base, is the hammer evil? No. Using the hammer for evil is evil. Covenant Eyes makes hammers. The potential for building incredible relationships with other individuals, as well as reinforcing marriages is unparalleled due to the complete and accurate accountability that Covenant Eyes provides.
That being said, what are the differences between Accountability Software and Spyware? Allow me to enumerate them.
|Person being held accountable is informed||Invisible to the person being spied upon|
|Sends information to an individual of the user’s choosing||Sends information without the user’s knowledge, to unknown parties|
|Installed with the computer owner’s express permission and knowledge||Installed covertly, often without the owner’s knowledge or permission|
|Able to be removed freely without third party software||Cannot be removed except with third party software or other difficult processes|
As you can see, there are some huge differences between accountability software, such as Covenant Eyes, and spyware.
First, keeping the person being held accountable informed is absolutely critical to proper use of the Covenant Eyes software. We feel so strongly about this that we express it in our terms of service. We even go so far as to say that in order to use this software we expect each individual user of the computer and login ID to be informed.
“You, as the user, agree that all users of your computer and user ID will be informed that monitoring/recording is being made, and that in so being informed, other users will not have their privacy invaded.”
These kind of proactive measures not only separates us from spyware, but helps put the emphasis on integrity and accountability. Which is sorta the point of our software ;).
Second, only sharing information with people that the user chooses is also critically important in accomplishing our mission. Our terms of service in paragraph three states:
“You, the user, agree that your Internet use may be monitored and reported to you and/or your Accountability Partners; monitored internet use includes, among other things, web browsing, newsgroups, filesharing, ftp, instant messaging, times of use, and may also include recording and reporting of additional Covenant Eyes accounts owned by you which may have different Accountability Partners. In turn, Covenant Eyes promises that any information collected will only be provided to you or your Accountability Partners as per this agreement; use by Covenant Eyes will be expressly limited to internal use only for the purposes of data base management or systems operations; in the event that Covenant Eyes uses any data collected for such internal purposes, no such data will be preserved in any format that is associated with your name or account. Covenant Eyes will never share any information gathered under this contract with any third party unless requested by you, the user, or unless required to do so by a court of law;”
Suffice to say your personal privacy is important to us. Not only do we not share your information with any individuals, we also don’t share it with “third party partners” or “business partners” or any similarly phrased loopholes that companies like to use in order to circumvent an individual’s privacy.
Third, requiring an administrator account in Windows, or the administrator password on the Mac ensures that only people who have the authority to install the software are able to install the software. This is directly opposed to spyware, which generally attempts to trick a user into installing the software or piggy backs on other software, such as screensavers.
Fourth, ease of uninstall is hugely important. Covenant Eyes has a well-documented, simple removal procedure for both Windows PCs and Macintosh Computers. Spyware tends to leave files and little hooks that leave your system vulnerable. It also can require you to use some third party applications, like SpySweeper or AdAware.
In conclusion, the differences between accountability software and spyware are very tangible. “Spying” on someone will never create a lasting positive change in their life. Accountability will.
Zach Spencer served on the Covenant Eyes web development team.