Friday, November 28, 2014

Phony Calls

In mid-September I was listening to the radio, and a story came on about how people were being stalked by abusive partners who had installed tracking software on their smartphones. The piece listed four makers of such software: mSpy, PhoneSheriff, MobiStealth and StealthGenie.

At the end of September I came across a different story - that Hammad Akbar, a Danish citizen of Pakistani descent and owner of InvoCode, the company that marketed StealthGenie, had been charged with conspiracy over the sale and advertising of the product and service. I remembered the original story, and so kept an eye out for news that more indictments were handed down.

But that news never came. StealthGenie's website vanished, but the others remained accessible. And I started to become suspicious that there was something more to the story than I was aware of. If, as Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell had stated, "Selling spyware is not just reprehensible, it's a crime," then it stood to reason that the companies based in the United States and United Kingdom would also have run afoul of the same laws. Maybe, I speculated, there was something else at work. After all, StealthGenie's owner was a Pakistani - perhaps there was another angle to the story, such as ties to Islamist groups, that wasn't made as public as the spyware allegations.

Well, there was another angle, just not that one. According to Ars Technica:

While parents may use surveillance software to monitor their minor children's mobile phones, InvoCode also marketed the spyware to "potential purchasers who did not have any ownership interest in the mobile phone to be monitored, including those suspecting a spouse or romantic partner of infidelity."
And that appears to be Akbar's mistake. It's perfectly legal to snoop on your children and your employees (although you need consent for employees), but not on a partner whom you suspect may be spying on you. And StealthGenie, it turns out, was expected to take in most of its revenue from the "spousal cheat" market, Sophos reported yesterday.
According to our market research[,] the majority chunk of the sales will come from people suspecting their partners to be cheating on them or just wanting to keep an eye on then [sic].
And this, it turns out is why StealthGenie is no more, and Akbar had to cough up $500,000 in fines.

As for the other applications, mSpy, PhoneSheriff and MobiStealth? One presumes that even though they could just as easily sell their services to "Husband/​Wife or boyfriend/​girlfriend suspecting their other half of cheating or any other suspicious behaviour or if they just want to monitor them," they know better than to come out and actually say that. In fact, they make you promise that you won't do that. (Because we all know what promises are worth.)

So, in the end, Assistant Attorney General Caldwell was incorrect. Selling spyware may be reprehensible, but it's not a crime, so long as you don't market it as a way of spying on another adult just because you suspect them of doing you wrong. So the other companies are free to keep doing what they're doing. Heck, mSpy will even sell you a phone with their monitoring software pre-loaded on it. It makes the perfect gift for that special someone who just might have another special someone...

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