On a rainy Tuesday in May, a dismayed customer came into the shop with an interesting issue that I rarely encounter.
On her iPhone 6s, tucked away in a folder she had created for apps she rarely uses, was an app called mSpy. I’d never heard of the app before nor had I any prior information about it, but given its name, one would immediately speculate the nature of its function. She accidentally came across it when performing her regular app updates and this particular app was asking for confirmation for the update. Gauging what information was being disclosed by the customer (and, more importantly, what information was not being disclosed), the topic was sensitive and I was reluctant to probe further, but as the conversation progressed, she did share that her and her partner were going through troubled times. So she did suspect that he had something to do with the presence of the app, even though he had denied any knowledge of it. However, further investigation into the settings of the app revealed that it could activate the microphone remotely to record audio, which was automatically forwarded to a linked device.
Experiencing that situation, it fueled my curiosity on mobile spy apps, which are developed to track the location and activity of another mobile device. Although uncommon, we do sometimes get nonchalant inquiries at the shop regarding “safeguarding apps to track activity”, but after doing my due diligence, what I found was that occurrences of “spying apps” are not so uncommon.
Most of these apps tout themselves as monitoring software to safeguard your child’s device and track their online activity on their personal mobiles. The features of these apps, however, could be used for other such not-so-benign purposes. For example, a visit to the Spyzie website, another tracking app, leads you to a landing page that presents the tagline, “All the information you need, one parental control solution”. On the flipside when you search Google for “how to spy on your girlfriend’s iPhone”, Spyzie is the first link that comes up and even runs ads alongside Google search results.
Same holds true for apps such as TeenSafe, FlexiSPY, XNSpy and Phone Sheriff.
The most common features that these apps share are:
1) Tracking and intercepting calls – allows you to listen to incoming and outgoing phone calls by patching you in as a three-way caller.
2) Recording phone calls – which you can review at a later time at your convenience.
3) Ambient listening mode – giving you the ability to remotely enable the microphone discreetly.
4) Remote camera control – enabling access to the camera to take photos on demand at any given time.
5) Information access on other apps – so you can access other social media and chat apps, (ie.Facebook, Snapchat, iMessage, etc.) installed on the phone and retrieve data.
6) GPS location and geo-fencing – in order to locate the phone.
What bodes true for the gamut of these apps to be installed on a device, is that the person installing the app has to be able to get into the phone, whether it be an iOS or Android device. That means the person installing the app knows your phone passcode or the Apple or Google Play ID password.
In most countries, such tracking apps constitute personal privacy violations, however, in the same countries, there are no laws that render child tracking illegal. For example, installing an app to track your child’s location for the sake of safety is legally legitimate, but using the same app to digitally monitor your spouse’s whereabouts and activity is considered wiretapping, stalking or even hacking. Therein lies the paradox of our technology.
The digital tools we have developed to gather data for seemingly innocuous purposes are the same tools that could be used by people who may have malicious intentions or intend to abuse technology without the consent of others.