The evolution of GPS and the smart-phone market has spawned a macabre industry of surveillance apps designed to be covertly installed onto the cellphones of vulnerable employees, business associates, partners and children.
Products such as Flexispy and Mobile Spy – allegedly used by hundreds of thousands of voyeurs – are chiefly marketed to paranoid parents and suspicious partners who want to invisibly monitor target phone activity – particularly real-time geo-location and call logs.
Such products are capable of allowing a third party to remotely view emails, messenger chats, text messages, phone contacts, memos, call logs and calendar appointments. as well as pictures, videos and music files saved in the phone. Many will allow subscribers to remotely listen in to voice conversations and view internet browsing history and saved bookmarks.
However the spy software has recently extended its reach to Android tablets and iPads, opening up a significant new market and substantially increasing the threat to privacy of millions of people.
These cross-platform apps can be loaded onto devices in about five minutes but generally require physical access to the target phone. Once installed the software can initiate alerts for the use of pre-set keywords in texts and emails, as well as entry or exit from designated locations (which one product describes as “Geo Fencing”).
A product called StealthGenie permits the covert interception and recording of voice calls as well as remote activation of the target device’s microphone.
Regardless of the legal jurisdiction in which they are used, the apps have always been – at best – grossly unethical and perilous to trust. However recent product launches have moved the industry into outright violation of criminal law. A product called StealthGenie permits the covert interception and recording of voice calls as well as remote activation of the target device’s microphone.
StealthGenie‘s terms and conditions include a bizarre requirement for obtaining the written consent of the target phone user – a condition that Professor Daniele Pica from Rome’s John Cabot University describes as a blatant contradiction.
“The software uses default stealth mode but allegedly needs to be approved by the surveilled person. The latter contradicts the former. A question arises: is it stealth or is it transparent? Is this legal? Should it be legal? Regulators should move immediately to audit such services to preserve the dignity of people.”
The stealth nature of these apps flies in the face of efforts by parts of the mobile industry to ensure that active tracking software remains visible. GSMA, the international mobile industry association, has published apps guidance that includes recommendations on transparency.
However there has been little effort made to create enforceability, with US industry and government insistent on maintaining a free market for intrusive apps. For example, a recent draft Code of Conduct published by the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was condemned outright by privacy and consumer groups as a toothless mechanism that did little or nothing to improve transparency in the market.
European privacy regulators are likely to be more prescriptive. A recent Opinion of the region’s data protection authorities lambasted the failure of platforms and apps developers to ensure transparency and consent.