An abusive partner or ex may be able to track you in detail through a secret app installed on your phone, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission warned Monday.
Surveillance apps are designed to be invisible to the phone’s owner. They can share audio recordings of phone calls, texts — even deleted ones — photos and location information. Some can turn on the phone’s microphone remotely to act as a bug, or to track whether the phone enters or leaves pre-defined circles on a map.
Installing the app usually requires at least a few minutes of physical access to the phone.
“Cyber stalking apps … enable continuous and secret tracking of a cellphone owner’s intimate conversations, medical appointments, online banking activity, intellectual musings, minute-to-minute movements, and far more,” University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron wrote in a recent paper
In 2014 testimony, U.S. Senator Al Franken told the story of a Minnesota woman who wasn’t aware that an abusive partner was tracking her through her phone:
“She went to a domestic violence program located in a county building. She got to the building, and within five minutes, she got a text from her abuser asking her why she was in the county building. The woman was terrified. And so an advocate took her to the courthouse to get a restraining order.”
“As soon as she filed for the order, she got a second text from her abuser asking her why she was at the courthouse, and whether she was getting a restraining order against him.”
In the last decade, the U.S. has seen several domestic violence homicides and other attacks where the abuser found the victim through a stalker app.
WATCH: We’ve been covering stories around digital privacy all year. Here’s one from earlier. When we looked at the leaked ashleymadison.com data, we found that almost none of the site’s users had turned off geolocation on their devices. Ashley Madison users are easy to map very precisely. We’re not going to publish that map, but it should make you think twice about the location apps on your phone.
SteathGenie, a spyware company which is no longer being sold after its owner was prosecuted in 2014, allowed the person owning the app to set up notifications if the phone entered a “red zone” or left a “green zone.”
A promotional video, still active on YouTube, refers openly to the movements of “your target”:
In general, spying apps promote themselves as aimed at three markets: parents spying on a child’s phone, employers tracking use of a company phone, and people keeping track of a partner.
“Couples can use FlexiSPY to establish trust in their relationship,” is the way one spyware company explains this third category.
FlexiSPY’s FAQ describes the app as “perfectly legal to install on your own phone … Please make sure you have explicit permission from the person whose phone you will be monitoring.”
The company’s legal disclaimer asks customers to “acknowledge you own the mobile phone you will install the software on, or have consent from the owner to administrate the device & install software onto it.”
A little deeper in the site, however, potential customers were told on Tuesday that “FlexiSPY gives you total control of your partner’s phone without them knowing it.”
“We do everything technically possible to ensure that your partner does not discover the software.”
We asked FlexiSPY to explain the contradiction. They responded by removing both statements:
“The quotes from our website that you mention are out of date, and we have removed them,” spokesperson Marc Harris wrote in an email.
“The site is a decade old with hundreds of pages, many of them written in a time where this was not such a sensitive issue.”
Here’s how it looks now:
Among the things that were removed was an estimate of how long, in minutes, it would take to install the app on various kinds of devices.
Harris would not say how many customers the company has, or how many of them are in Canada.
We asked Harris how a customer would find out a partner’s secrets by using a surveillance app that they knew about; we’ll update the story if we get a response.
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FlexiSPY offers dozens of features, including password harvesting, copying browser history, geographic location and history, reading emails and text messages and downloading address books and calendars.
It doesn’t come cheap: FlexiSPY’s premium service runs to US$349 a year. For that price, you can control the target phone’s camera and microphone, and listen to and record phone calls.
In Canada, installing a surveillance app without the victim knowing about it could violate several criminal laws, as well as open the door to a civil lawsuit.
“You can sue somebody for invading your privacy in a manner that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person,” says Halifax-based lawyer David Fraser, who specializes in privacy issues.
“If the victim is extremely upset and seeks psychological counselling, things like that, that goes towards the measure of damages.”
As well, criminal wiretapping laws which allow for up to five years in prison could apply, though prosecutions are “not common.”
“It has been my consistent experience that police lack the imagination or the training to extrapolate existing offences and see how they could work in an online or technology-enabled environment.”
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