They have names like mSpy, SMS Mobile Spy, and Spy WhatsApp, and typically bill themselves as apps worried consumers can use to keep their eyes on their underage children.
These so-called “spyware” apps let one family member remotely snoop on another through a smartphone or tablet. Text messages, call logs, emails, location, calendar information, and even voice conversations are all ripe for tracking.
Some people do use this technology to ensure they know that their kids get home from school on time or to ensure their spouses know where they are.
Keith McWhirther, associate director of the office of the CIO at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, is one of those people.
McWhirther explained that his 15-year-old son walks home from work and school, but always forgets to call his parents to let them know he has arrived safely. Using tracking technology, McWhirther receives a notification when his son gets home. His son is aware the tracking technology has been installed on his smartphone.
Not only that, McWhirther said he installed the tracking technology on his phone so his wife can always check on his whereabouts. McWhirther said he often loses track of time and, like his son, forgets to let his wife know his location.
But increasingly, these spyware apps are also being used surreptitiously by scorned lovers as well as couples going through divorces – messy or otherwise – to remotely snoop on the physical or electronic whereabouts of their partners.
The problem is these apps are illegal if you install such an app on device you don’t own – in the case of children the assumption is the parent owns the device – or if your spouse or significant other hasn’t given you permission to monitor his or her device, according to attorney Ted Claypoole, of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Charlotte, N.C.
“When it comes to spouses, with consent, everybody can be tracked,” Claypoole said. “But in my case that would be a problem because my phone belongs to my employer. So for my wife to put a tracking device on the smartphone that belongs to my employer is probably not legal.”
Family law attorney Henry Gornbein said he is seeing more and more divorce cases where one spouse is using a spyware mobile app to spy on the other spouse.
“You want to monitor your children – that’s a good thing,” said Gornbein, an attorney at Lippitt O’Keefe in Birmingham, Mich. “But a divorce is like a chess game. You’re always strategizing, so if the other person always knows your next move, it’s going to handicap you.”
Although the information obtained via a spyware app can’t be used in court if it was illegally obtained, it still has value for the spouse doing the tracking. And it has consequences for the attorney of the person being tracked as well.
If every email and text message is being tracked by his client’s spouse, that means that all his communications with his client are being compromised – letting the spouse and the spouse’s attorney know his strategy, Gornbein said.
Many people don’t realize that their spouse may be spying on you even without spyware, said attorney John Kinney of the Kinney Law Firm in Omaha, Neb.
“If you have an iPhone and you save information to iCloud and a spouse has your password, he can access your text messages, your emails, and your pictures without the spyware apps,” Kinney said. “I had this happen to a client. Because people share Apple devices, sometimes Apple will transfer pictures and other things from a mom’s iPad to a child’s cell phone and then the child will bring the cell phone over to his dad’s house, plugs it into the computer and then all of a sudden some of mom’s stuff is popping up on dad’s home computer. There’s a lot of that going on – sometimes just by accident.”
Exposing employer data is an issue that consumers need to be aware of if they decide to place spyware on other people’s phones or if they think such apps have been downloaded on their phones, said Kevin Watkins, co-founder and CTO of risk management company Appthority, which automates the discovery, analysis, and approval of apps present on employee devices.
Watkins said even if these spyware apps are being used for legitimate purposes, in today’s world of BYOD (bring your own device), they can still put an employer’s sensitive corporate data at risk by exposing corporate contact books, email, browsing information, as well as collecting private data from corporate apps. The apps can then send this information over the network to the servers of the company that developed the app, he said.