A fellow inmate of CISSPforum sent us a link today to an interesting piece in the Boston Globe regarding the victim of a laptop theft using remote access software to log on to his machine and, in due course, identify the suspected thief's name and address as he typed it into a website. At last, an ethical use for a Remote Access Trojan (RAT)!
The Web is awash with organizations offering to license their RATs and keylogging Trojans but, so far as I can see, they are mostly aiming at the "Spy on your spouse" market. Some of them claim to be aiming at "Spy on your employees" or "Spy on your children", as if that legimitises their activities but speaking personally, I find these uses unethical too. Spouses, employees and children ALL have legitimate expectations of privacy, whether online or off. To me, spying on them as they use the computers is essentially the same as spying on them in the Real World. It's underhand and unfair. Putting yourself in their shoes, how would you like to be spied upon?
[Aside: presumably there is a market for counter-espionage techniques, software that identifies RATs etc. and responds in some appropriate fashion, perhaps feeding the spies false information or simply cutting the link, the IT equivalent of firing a poison pellet into the spy's calf!].
That said, an incident close to home has made me reconsider my ethical position when a close family member discovered that her child was being 'groomed' through online chatrooms. The discovery came not through spy software but good ol' fashioned parenting - keeping a close eye on the little ones and protecting their interests. In this case, the parents' concern was justified and the groomer was stopped in his tracks, but I'm not saying that "the end justifies the means". If my relative had used spy software, I would still have found it distasteful. I think. But that's my personal perspective: you may see things differently.
Anyway, the use of spy software to recover a stolen computer seems perfectly reasonable and indeed entirely legitimate to me. The thief has no reasonable expectation of privacy while using stolen equipment. Maybe I wouldn't go so far as to say the thief has no rights at all (he is still a human being after all) but privacy is not one of them. The Globe mentions similar cases where owners have turned on built-in cameras to photograph those who are using their stolen systems - again, that's not unreasonable to me, just a creative use of technology.
Of course, thieves will see things differently.