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Mother's Little Sniffer

By Annalee Newitz

HACKING has finally gone so mainstream that it's ready for a starring role in after-school specials and Desperate Housewives rip-offs. Techie Syngress Press' latest "serious security" book, Cyber Spying, 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 figured out how to cross 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 while working late at their dotcom jobs, Cyber Spying traffics in all the lurid scare tactics of those driver-safety films from the 1950s that Rick and Megan Prelinger are so fond of collecting. Read the book's dust jacket, which promises to teach you all about "the evils that exist across the Internet," and you know you're in for a campy treat.

Written by four ex-CIA nerds, the book 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 where the authors teach you about the slang used by "netizins" (sic). For example, did you know that when somebody asks you to "cyber," they're 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 their room and glance at the IM dialog on their monitor.

And here's the kicker: "420" means marijuana! The authors reassure us that there are websites 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 that it's just fine to install spy shit on your computer to catch your spouse cheating and check to see if your daughter has an eating disorder. People who know what's happening fare better in divorces and in bad situations with their children, 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 rather gleeful tone taken through the book whenever spying is mentioned seems to tell a different story about the true 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 that our authors teach us that cyber means sex, one wonders whether the book's title refers to how fun and easy it is to spy on your kids and cheating spouse while they have sex.

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

Tune into the next chapter in 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 email 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 ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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