Personal spy gear: Is it ethical? Is it legal?

You can now hide a GPS unit in your family car and find out where everybody went. But should you?

These days, if you want to watch over your house, your kids or your significant other, there's a whole world of high-tech security devices out there you can use, in forms you may not have even imagined.

There are tiny GPS data loggers you can slip into someone's car or backpack to learn where they're going. There are audio recorders the size of flash drives that can listen in and preserve the conversations of others nearby. And there are surveillance cams in a whole assortment of motion-activated disguises, including facial tissue dispensers, alarm clocks, outdoor home electrical boxes, bird feeders and even soft, furry teddy bears.

But while it's easy to find and buy surveillance devices, is it legal and/or ethical to use them? Is it okay if you use them to watch over strangers? Is it reasonable to use them to watch and hear family members and loved ones?

The answers can sometimes be murky.

"There are definitely legalities to consider," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based non-profit privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it."

Who uses spy devices?

"The majority of these products are purchased for the safety of peoples' families or friends, or for when they are having work done in their homes and can't be there to watch," said Helen Bowser, co-owner of The Protection Pros in Morristown, Ind., which sells a full line of personal security devices online to everyone from suspicious spouses to worried parents. For example, Bowser said, many customers buy surveillance cameras to keep an eye on nannies who care for their children in their homes.

Bowen Scott, president of SpyGear4U in Kingsport, Tenn., said that among his biggest sellers in high-tech personal security equipment are small audio recorders that allow a user to record voices or other audio in another room. Also popular are devices that can detect if a user's phone or room is being bugged by listening devices.

Tim Westphal, a private investigator in Fraser, Mich., who also runs Spytek Detroit, a business selling personal security gear, said all kinds of people use these gadgets for many different reasons.

Parents of teenagers are buying and using GPS loggers to watch over how their new drivers are doing on the roads, particularly so they can monitor speeds and driving routes. A logger can be stealthily placed in a vehicle where it stores the GPS coordinates; later, it's removed by parents, who plug it into a computer to review the driving details.

"You can find out wherever they were and exactly what they were doing," Westphal said. "You can actually even take the GPS coordinates and plot it out on Google Maps."

The ethical questions

So it's now possible for anyone to spy on others. But is it right?

"Ethically, I think it's a personal decision," Helen Bowser said. "If a mother wants to check on her child, that's for her to decide. If someone wants to judge somebody for buying a camera or buying a voice recorder, they have to put themselves in the other person's shoes. If [your] child or other loved one was in that kind of position, what would you do? You know, you do what you have to do."

EFF attorney Tien said gadgets like these can be used ethically -- or not.

It's one thing when such tracking data is collected with your implied consent, such as when you sign up to use an EZ-Pass transponder in your vehicle to automatically pay tolls on highways and bridges across the eastern U.S., Tien said. "But once you start thinking about where you are in your everyday life and [how such data reveals where you are and] when you are there, it's actually a pretty revealing thing."

If a parent wants to use a GPS device to ensure their teen driver's safety and tells the teen that the device is being used in the vehicle, then that can "help keep an honest person honest," Tien said. But if a user wants to track another person for another reason in a secret way, then that's perhaps an unethical use. "It's still a control thing to do. It's certainly not something I'd do to my kids. We have a trusting relationship."

He added that the ethical issues are much different if you do that to someone without their consent, especially when it occurs on private property versus in a public place. "If it's in your own home, a security system, and you're the one who has access to it and others don't, you are in control." To be ethical about it, you should let visitors know that they are subject to being videotaped or monitored while in your home.

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