Man Sues Surveillance Company for Spying on His Conversations With Married Woman

The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that a man could sue the creators of a computer program that allegedly intercepted communication between him and a married woman.


Javier Luis, of Tampa, Florida, met a woman named Catherine Zang in a chat room on metaphysics in 2009. Zang's husband, Joseph Zang, somehow became aware of the personal relationship and installed a program called WebWatcher, created by a company called Awareness Technologies, on the family computer to monitor her. WebWatcher made recordings of all the online interactions between Luis and Catherine Zang, which Joseph Zang was then able to review after they were routed to Awareness Technologies' servers in California. Though Javier Luis and Catherine Zang never actually met in person, Zang's husband allegedly was able to use the compiled communications to his advantage in their divorce proceedings.

Luis sued Awareness Technologies, arguing that the targeting of private computers violates the Wiretap Act, a federal law that protects one's communications with other people. Initially, the suit was dismissed by a Cincinnati federal trial court in 2014. That court ruled that the user of the software, not the company that created the software, was responsible for the spying. However, now the Sixth Circuit majority​ has revived the case.

According to some, Luis' case could have far-reaching implications regarding the use of such programs. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Mark Pickrell, the interim head of the appellate litigation clinic that's representing Luis, said he believed the lawsuit could impact the workplace. While some workers give their employers the right to monitor them when they take a job, they do not give consent for the people they communicate with to be monitored as well.

The "Employee Monitoring" section of Awareness Technologies' website advertises a variety of surveillance features:

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As for the specific program, a website for WebWatcher boasts: "All WebWatcher products install easily in 5 minutes or less, are undetectable (thus tamper proof) and all recorded data is sent to a secure web-based account which allows you to monitor kids and employees at your convenience from any computer."

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