The developer of an internet monitoring software has lost in an appeal filed by plaintiffs suing the company for invasion of privacy, according to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Awareness Technologies, creators of WebWatcher, had successfully filed to dismiss the lawsuit brought about by Javier Luis of Florida, but the higher court overturned that dismissal and said that Luis’ case against the software developer can move forward.
While this isn’t a victory for personal privacy, it should be making a few software developers nervous right now. The suit claims that WebWatcher violates several state and federal wire tapping laws, and that their advertising is purposely misleading. Rather than promoting their product as an added layer of cybersecurity, the company intentionally markets it as a way to spy on your spouse, your children, or even your employees.
And that’s where lawyers and privacy experts have weighed in. It’s one thing to monitor your company’s network for unlawful activity, such as downloading child pornography or stealing company data, but smart businesses will make it known to their employees that their activity is being monitored. If an employee is permitted to check his personal email at work or is able to communicate with someone outside the company, and they are not aware of products such as WebWatcher monitoring their communication in real-time, then their rights may very well have been violated.
On the home front, there are legal concerns that monitoring software like this can have serious consequences for individuals within the family. If parents are monitoring their son’s internet use behind his back, then withhold his college tuition after they discover he’s been visiting gay dating websites, that’s their right as parents. But is the company who produced the software that allowed them to intercept his private communications (especially if he has turned 18 before finishing school) and use that information to cause him financial harm, responsible?
Luis’ suit was brought about after he made an online friend, then that friend’s husband used WebWatcher to spy on their communications, something that he says is specifically promoted in the company’s advertising. Now that the appeals court has said their is sufficient reason for the lawsuit to move forward, it will remain to be seen how companies that create this type of spying software are held accountable for the fallout.