There are many different types of web monitoring software, intended for different purposes. Generally, however, web monitoring software comes in one of two flavors: active web monitoring software and passive web monitoring software. Active software limits what internet users on a computer can access and see, being used to keep children from accessing sites deemed unacceptable, or employees from wasting time at work, or a number of other uses. Passive software, on the other hand, allows users to do whatever they wish on the internet, but it tracks everything they are doing into a log, which can later be retrieved by a parent, boss, or other interested party to monitor how people are using the internet.
Active web monitoring software is by far the most common type of web monitoring software, and includes products such as Guardian® Monitor Family Edition and Spytech® SentryPC. Active web monitoring software is most often used with children, to make sure they cannot access sites deemed dangerous or distasteful. Pornographic sites, for example, may be blocked by this type of software, as might online chat rooms or other areas where children could run into online criminals.
Most active web monitoring software functions by using a central database of sites which are blacklisted, and then utilizes some level of content analysis to check a site before it is visited. Better programs allow parents or employers to add sites to a whitelist, letting them through no matter what, for example in cases where an online version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover might be blocked but needed for a school project. These programs often also allow certain keywords to be added to the blacklist, to stop sites that display concepts a specific parent finds distasteful from appearing.
Passive web monitoring software is somewhat more subtle, although many programs come bundled with both an active and passive version. The intent of passive web monitoring software is to record all internet activity, so that a parent or employer can later go over it to see if anything has been taking place that they are unhappy with. To this end, not only are things like websites visited tracked, but also chat conversations, incoming and outgoing email, downloads, and even keystrokes as they are typed.
Simple software keeps all of this information in a central log, which can later be accessed by the person who installed it. More modern software often includes a remote access version as well, which allows whoever installed it to actually watch what the person is doing on the computer in real time. In this way they can essentially eavesdrop on chat conversations and web browsing, and can intercede if they think anything is about to happen that might be dangerous or unacceptable. In a work environment, this allows employers to monitor their employees to make sure they are working on their projects when at the computer, rather than wasting company time.
Of course, web monitoring software brings up a number of ethical, and even legal, questions, which have been the subject of a great deal of debate. When blocking access to sites, questions of censorship arise, and given that these programs often block sites with a great deal of impunity, sometimes entirely benign sites may be blocked. When monitoring web traffic and chats, privacy issues are evoked, and the question is raised whether a parent or an employer has a right to watch in on private conversations, no matter what the justifications might be.