When it comes to our kids the mantra is “safety first.” But what happens if safety means spying on your children’s online activities? Potentially, this is what ComputerCOP allows parents to do. A number of questions come immediately to mind. In light of recent NSA revelations, could the government do this to us? That is could our government (the parents in this scenario) make the case that spying on its citizens (us, the children) was for their own good? But the thornier question really is this: If you could be privy to everything your children do online, would you really want to know? I’m sure there are some parents whose children have been endangered by online activity who would support this wholeheartedly. Would the rest of us want this power too… just in case?
Posted By Jason Ohler
A county sheriff from Limestone, Alabama is sticking by his department’s endorsement of ComputerCOP, a shady piece of software given to parents to monitor their kids online. Other law enforcement agencies, it appears, have followed that example.
Earlier this week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation published an investigation into software called ComputerCOP which approximately 245 agencies in more than 35 states, plus the US Marshals, have been distributing to parents to use to monitor their children. The software is essentially spyware, and many versions come with a keylogger, which in some cases transmits unencrypted keystrokes to a server.
In addition to ComputerCOP’s security issues, the EFF discovered misleading marketing materials that wrongly claimed endorsements from the US Department of the Treasury and the ACLU. “Law enforcement agencies have purchased a poor product, slapped their trusted emblems on it, and passed it on to everyday people. It’s time for those law enforcement agencies to take away ComputerCOP’s badge,” Dave Maass of the EFF wrote in an article that was republished on Ars on Wednesday.
Still, many of the sheriff’s and police departments endorsing this software continue to stick by it. In many cases, the agencies have sunk thousands of dollars into purchasing the software.
In an article published by a local news outlet, County Sheriff Mike Blakely of Limestone, Alabama called the EFF an “ultra-liberal organization that is not in any way credible on this. They’re more interested in protecting predators and pedophiles than in protecting our children.”
He added, “There are some parents out in Columbine Colorado, if they had this kind of software, things would have turned out differently.”
Blakely also told the news outlet, “We have had the key logger checked out with our IT people. They have run it on our computer system… There is no malware.”
In a phone conversation with Ars on Friday, Sheriff Blakely referred us to the department’s IT guys, whom he promised would return our call on Monday. Sheriff Blakely continued, “This is a disk that we give people but it is completely free… and parents are welcome to it if they want it.”
With respect to the EFF he said, “I’m not against their criticism but I just think they’re probably more interested in protecting predators and pedophiles than in protecting our children.”
“As sheriff, I went down [to schools] and met with kids and I taught them about bicycle safety and not to talk to strangers,” Blakely said, adding that handing out ComputerCOP was just another branch of the department’s efforts to keep kids from being solicited online.
“If you and I were married and had a 14-year-old daughter, then yeah I could check on who you’re talking to online and you could check who I’m talking to,” he said. “But if [ComputerCOP is] used properly, it’s something we whole-heartedly endorse. Now if you’re of the persuasion of the people of the EFF who would rather not do anything, then that’s something that I can’t help.”
He also noted that the police wouldn’t see the results of ComputerCOP’s surveillance after a parent installed it on a computer. “This is not us checking on their kids, this is parents checking on their kids, [and it includes] stuff to read about how to deal with bullying,” and other things parents might not know how to address.
When Ars suggested that the keylogger portion of ComputerCOP could hypothetically allow hackers to see parents’ passwords that they type into the same computer their children use, the sheriff once again referred Ars to the IT department.
Ars also contacted four law enforcement agencies around the country who have made ComputerCOP available in 2014, including the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office in California, the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, the Dunwoody Police Department in Georgia, and the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin. (The list of departments that have supplied ComputerCOP to parents is long, but these four have made the software available most recently.) None of the departments Ars contacted were available for comment.
After the EFF report was published, the District Attorney for the County of San Diego—which spent $25,000 in asset forfeiture funds on 5,000 copies of ComputerCOP in 2012—issued an alert to users of ComputerCOP, citing “potential security issues,” and telling parents to turn ComputerCOP’s keylogging features off. According to TechDirt, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie M. Dumanis has stuck by her support of the software.