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What’s the difference between monitoring and spying?

Celeste Stewart If you use a computer, your actions may not be completely private. For example, if you are using a company computer at your workplace, your employer may be monitoring some, if not all, of your actions. Similarly, your personal computer may have software installed on it that records your usage. This software may be "monitoring" software or it could be "spyware." What's the difference?

While both monitoring software and spyware are intrusive, they aren't the same thing. First, monitoring software is often installed with your knowledge. Employers may have clear policies covering computer and e-mail usage with full disclosure that monitoring software is in place.

Why would your employer want to monitor computer usage? One of the main reasons has to do with productivity. Employees at workstations "look" like they're working. However, are they really working or are they checking out the latest You Tube videos? Another reason involves liability. For example, if an employee is viewing porn and co-workers are uncomfortable when passing by and seeing the images, a "hostile work environment" has been created.

At home, monitoring software is often used to keep tabs on how the children are using their computers. This type of monitoring software is typically categorized as "parental controls." Parents can allow and block certain classes of Web sites and games as well as monitor Instant Messages and e-mail. Additional features include setting computer time limits, program usage, and download restrictions.

In addition, legitimate monitoring software could be used for spying. For example, if you have a jealous or suspicious spouse, monitoring software may have been installed on your computer without your knowledge. This type of monitoring reports back to your partner which Web sites you have visited, e-mails sent and received, Instant Messaging and chat transcripts, pictures or videos you have viewed, and other information. These programs are designed to run in the background without your knowledge. You won't find a desktop icon or the program in your Programs list.

Spyware is another type of program that monitors computer usage. Spyware is installed without your knowledge, often as a hitchhiker to a legitimate download. Once installed, these programs collect data and transmit it to a third party. Each spyware program has its own mission ranging from sending you targeted advertisements based on your Internet history to stealing your financial information by capturing your keystrokes.

There's not a whole lot that you can do about your employer's monitoring software other than play by the rules and perform your job as expected. Likewise, if you suspect your spouse has installed monitoring software, you have trust and privacy issues that you will need to work out as well as a potentially dangerous situation should your partner have violent tendencies.  Of all the different types of monitoring, spyware is the easiest to deal with. A good anti-spyware program such as ParetoLogic's XoftSpySE or Anti-Virus Plus removes existing spyware infections and prevents future ones.

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