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Mother's Little Sniffer

Spying is fun for the whole family! Let the CIA teach you how.
 
 
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Hacking has finally gone so mainstream it's ready for a starring role in after-school specials and Desperate Housewives rip-offs. That became obvious after I read Techie Syngress Press's latest "serious security" book, Cyber Spying , which argues that the best use for powerful network analysis tools like Ethereal and Back Orifice is preventing your teen from getting hooked on drugs, developing an eating disorder, or having sex. Known for sensationalistic but educational hacking books like How to Own a Continent , Syngress has finally figured out how to cross daytime soap operas with the macho world of computer security.

Full of anecdotes about dangerous online predators, teens lured into gang activity in chat rooms, and wives who stray from their husbands while working late at dot-com jobs, Cyber Spying has all the lurid and poorly conceived scare tactics of one of those '50s "driver safety" films Rick Prelinger and Megan Prelinger are so fond of collecting. Once you read the dust jacket, which promises to teach you all about "the evils that exist across the Internet," you know you're in for a campy treat.

Written by four ex-Central Intelligence Agency nerds, Cyber Spying has the bumbling feel of a police officer's presentation to your high school class about the horrors of drugs. There's even a section in which the authors teach you about the slang used by "netizins" (sic) - for example, did you know that when somebody asks you to "cyber," he or she is asking for cybersex? Also, "POS" does not mean point-of-service health insurance, as you might think. It means, "parent over shoulder" and is a sure sign your teen is hiding something when you wander into the room and glance at the IM dialog on his or her monitor. And here's the kicker: "420" means marijuana! The authors assure us there are Web sites out there where kids can buy illegal drugs like 420, even though their exhaustive search didn't reveal any.

Dude, POS. Stop cybering with the 420, K?

This is all to say that you should be spying on your spouse and kids. The authors confess that while they're not lawyers, they're sure it's just fine to install spy shit on your computer to catch your spouse cheating and see if your daughter has an eating disorder. People who know what's happening fare better in divorces and tough parenting situations, the authors reassure us, without ever really defining what "faring better" means. What they leave out is that breaking wiretap laws, even to suck up your spouse's data, is still a crime. Just as you aren't allowed to rape a chick even if you're married to her, you're not allowed to intercept her private communications either. You don't give up your rights when you get married.

In fact, the book's rather gleeful tone whenever spying is mentioned seems to tell a different story about the motivations behind learning to read a TCP stream in Ethereal, which sniffs data as it travels between your "target" computer and the Internet. At one point, the authors write, "Sniffing is done for many reasons, with two of the most common being network performance analysis (boring) and spying." Are these guys for real? They sound about as trustworthy as your drug-taking, anorexic, sex-trolling teen. Given what our authors have told us about the meaning of "cyber," one wonders whether the title refers to how fun and easy it is to spy on your kids and cheating spouse while they have sex.

We certainly get to have our voyeuristic thrills, even as we learn how keystroke loggers capture everything your kids type so you can examine it in detail later for 420 and worse. Every chapter is fattened up with juicy "anonymized" stories like the one about a guy who works at the CIA and discovers his wife is cheating on him by spying on her chat sessions, or the one where an overworked mother uses a keystroke logger and spy cam to find out if her son is using drugs (he isn't - it's the babysitter who's stashing her pills in his room). Oh, the drama! Oh, the packet-sniffing, keylogging drama! Will the spurned CIA wonk forgive his cybering wife? Will the babysitter go to jail?

Tune in to the next chapter of Cyber Spying, where you'll learn how to use Google Desktop to read your daughter's love letters to her boyfriend on Yahoo! Mail (hello, potential violation of the Stored Communications Act!) and what it takes to redirect your husband's IM phone messages to your e-mail inbox (hello, potential violation of the Wiretap Act!). But don't worry - it's not really breaking the law if you're violating your family's rights. Plus, it's so boring to use hacker tools for niceness and good. Spying is fun! Let the CIA teach you how.

Annalee Newitz ( cybering@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who learned ARP spoofing so that she could sniff the cyber her cat was secretly sending over the Interweb! Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.