Ascentive, a closely held Philadelphia software firm, last week released a new version of its BeAware computer monitoring software. The updated version offers a ChatWatch feature that allows the owner to view any instant-messaging sessions or chat-room conversations that take place on the machine.
Parents and employers already have many available ways to track or limit online activity at their computers. Widely available filtering software blocks access to pornographic or violent Web sites, and many companies block e-mail containing certain objectionable words. But instant-messaging, or IM, sessions have generally fallen outside the scope of monitoring programs. Also, unlike e-mail or Web surfing, IM sessions leave no visible log on a hard drive or corporate server--a quick hit of the escape key and they're gone for good.
But the ChatWatch feature could change all that. The software essentially records IM chats like a VCR records television programs, giving the PC owner the ability to see frequent screen shots of actual conversations and to search and view IM logs for certain words, according to Adam Schram, chief executive of Ascentive. ChatWatch is more effective than filtering, he says, because it gives PC owners a more complete picture of what takes place on their computers.
"Filters give you too many false positives and negatives--they block breast-cancer sites but not all porn sites," Schram said. ChatWatch, on the other hand, allows parents to "see what is done online while they're gone."
Instant messaging has skyrocketed in popularity over the last few years, and is popular both at work and at home, according to market research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. In September, 13.4 million people in the U.S. used an IM application at work, up 34% from the year before, and 53.8 million people used IM at home, up 28% from the year before.
ChatWatch, which costs $49.95, is aimed primarily at parents interested in protecting children from unwanted instant messengers. The software is also targeted to suspicious spouses and corporations interested in eavesdropping in online discussions. So far, Ascentive says it has no corporate customers for BeAware. The company declined to disclose early sales of the software. Currently, AOL Time Warner , Microsoft, and Yahoo--the three major instant-messaging providers--don't include filtering or monitoring features in their software. Microsoft, like the other IM providers, allows users to protect their privacy by blocking messages from people they don't know and controlling which users can see them online.
"Microsoft is committed to protecting consumers' privacy," said Sarah Lefko, lead product manager at Microsoft's MSN division, and is working on "developing technology" to ensure their customers online safety, declining to be more specific. AOL and Yahoo didn't return calls seeking comment. Considering IM conversations on your family or employer's computer private or secure is naive, according to Schram. "When you're on someone else's computer you don't have an expectation of privacy," he said.
Generally, privacy advocates say that as long as users are informed that their discussions are being monitored, they don't have a problem with the product.
In fact, the biggest problem with "spyware" like ChatWatch is that it isn't very effective, according to Jason Catlett, founder of Junkbusters, an online privacy organization. "Logging screen shots won't stop a child from being exposed to anything," said Catlett. "If the child needs supervision, parents should supervise by being present."