"Modern technology is a double-edged sword; it can both ease and complicate one's life."
This axiom is perhaps the obvious and appropriate description of the countless problems caused by some computer technology companies that are marketing easy-to-use spyware computer software. The Saudi market has recently been overtaken by companies advertising spyware software. It is worth noting that, for the first time, these advertisement campaigns are being aimed at women, in particular.
The companies marketing such software claim that their programs are marketed towards companies, corporations, and individuals. These companies claim that spyware is most commonly used by a father to monitor his children's internet access or by a company monitoring the internet access of its employees. However these same companies post advertisements on social networking sites and internet forums that specifically market this software towards women. These advertisements are aimed particularly at married women, and use explicit language such as "Monitor your husband's computer" and "Unlock his password."
For his part, 26-year old Badr Abdul-Aziz, the internet moderator of the Alps Online Company that specializes in selling computer software said that women make up almost 90 percent of his company's sales. Abdul-Aziz also said that the recent rise in the sale of laptops in Saudi Arabia has contributed to increasing his company's sales of spyware software.
Abdul-Aziz revealed that his company's spyware program is sold for 1,000 Saudi Riyals [SR] and is sent directly to the client's email, along with a special code and installation instructions. According to Badr Abdul-Aziz, the spyware is installed in a manner that is impossible for the computer user to discover. Once installed, the spyware program will email a daily report to the client of all the applications accessed by the user, as well as copies of all e-mail correspondence made on that computer including times, dates, and the identity of recipients.
Alps Online Company claims that their spyware is undetectable, and can only be deleted from a computer by the person who originally installed it. The company also boasts that this software is easy to install, taking up to only three minutes.
Abdul-Aziz admits that this spyware is expensive, especially as it does not provide several features offered by other software, such as the ability to record voice conversations and record images viewed by the user. However Abdul-Aziz justifies this by saying that "The price is part of our policy of calculating the [potential] damage that such programs can cause. It is also part of our moral obligation towards our customers. We are fully aware that – like any tool – this software can be misused."
He added "We reduced the features offered by this software for these reasons, cancelling the features that allowed audio recordings and visual images to be viewed as these could be used as evidence in [criminal] convictions. However other features such as written information and emails cannot be used for this purpose, despite the potential harm that this may inflict in the event of information being uncovered by the wrong person. We therefore deliberately raised the price of the software…so that it is not overly accessible or that it can be purchased and utilized by anybody, even though lowering the price could significantly increase sales and profits in a short period of time."
Abdul-Aziz went on to say "Many families are having difficulty monitoring their children's internet access, and the internet is something that cannot be prohibited from the home as this has become an important means of communication and education. At the same time, the number of children in Saudi families who have their own personal computer has significantly increased over the past few years. Therefore using a [spyware] program like the one that we are marketing has become essential for parents to monitor their children and ensure that they are not utilizing the internet in an incorrect or dangerous manner."
As for the legality of selling this type of software, Abdul-Aziz said "There is no need for a permit. The company is licensed and has a commercial permit that allows the sale of computer software."
The majority of people that use such spyware do not admit to this, however 37-year-old Yasser Hemam has admitted to using spyware on his boss's computer at work. Hemam justifies his actions by saying "Perhaps in the eyes of many people this is wrong, but I have my own reasons and objectives, and what this software allowed me to discover prompted me to transfer to another department and rescue myself from a difficult situation. This is a situation that my former colleagues experienced, and one that I too would have endured had I not been better informed about what was going on behind the scenes."
Zahra Yamani, a director at the al-Noor Centre for Psychological and Social Counselling, stressed that resorting to spying in order to uncover the behaviour or inner thoughts of one's spouse is wrong. She said "the desire of some wives to know more details about their husband's daily life can in many cases be justifiable and acceptable, however it is an abnormal development when this crosses the line into spying and may denote some deep-seated psychological problems. Communication and dialogue are the only suitable way to deal with suspicion and anxiety; spying is not a feasible way to resolve marital or family problems."
Yamani emphasized that this also applies to families who spy upon their children. She said "fear and worry may cause some families to behave in such a manner and spy upon their children even though this is wrong. Such families tend to over-protect their children which may indirectly cause psychological damage. Children should be monitored but in a reasonable and legitimate manner that enables their personalities to develop in a correct and balanced way."
As for the proliferation of such software, Yamani said "I do not think this issue has become a widespread phenomenon. Field studies and statistics are needed to resolve this question. At the same time, I do not think that it would be useful to prevent the sale of such programs as they are readily available online and can be simply purchased over the internet."
As for the viewpoint that it is religiously permissible for parents to monitor their children using such methods, Sheikh Saleh Bin Abdullah al-Shamrani, Professor of Islamic Culture at the Scientific Institute affiliated to the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud University said that spyware software is forbidden under the provision of Islamic Shariaa Law. He added "any reasonable person should know that invading another person's privacy is forbidden in Islam. This also applies to married couples...for marriage should be based upon trust and openness. To resort to such methods only opens the door to even larger problems."
Sheikh al-Shamrani believes that the use of such spyware software – regardless of motive – is religiously impermissible. He said "In principle, parents should never resort to such methods. This is forbidden even if parents consider this to be in the interests of their children. Parents should first and foremost monitor their children in a manner that complies with Islamic Shariaa Law. Parents should urge their children to perform their prayers and uphold their morals; two wrongs do not make a right."