Have you ever been under surveillance? You might have been and not even know it. Whether you have heard of stalkerware or not, it could still be used on you.
For the first time, the FTC has banned the company, Retina-X Studios, LLC, from selling it. Let’s explore why the government agency took action, what stalkerware is, and how this type of technology can put you or your loved ones at risk.
What is Stalkerware?
Have you ever been harassed online or experienced a toxic or abusive relationship? Even if you value privacy, stalkerware technology can sound terrifying.
Although marketed for legal use on a purchaser’s own devices, to monitor children or employees, the reality is that many people would misuse stalkerware in frightening ways. Jealous spouses, abusive partners, stalkers, and predators could buy and install the app on the phones they wanted to track.
The malicious software would then run in the background of an unlocked or jailbroken phone, virtually undetectable. The icon could even be removed, to make observing the app on a phone next to impossible. Once installed, the purchaser could remotely read texts, view the camera, see photographs, track GPS locations, view online activities, and reveal calls or call history.
Most concerning, the software could track the phone holder through GPS, which is of particular concern for victims of domestic violence. Primarily, anything that you use a cell phone could be revealed to anyone with access to stalkerware apps.
Stalkerware Apps and Allegations from the FTC
Alleging that the company, Retina-X Studios, LLC did not adequately verify that users were using the monitoring app appropriately, an FTC case has been filed against the company and its owner, James N. Johns Jr. Retina-X sold the software under the name MobileSpy, PhoneSheriff, and TeenShield.
The FTC complaint also alleged that data was not kept safe and confidential for (some) users, including children. Moreover, the software is alleged to violate the COPPA or Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, as information from children under age 13 should have been secured.
Although the idea of stalkerware might appeal to jealous spouses or suspicious employers, it also appeals to hackers. Hackers targeted the stalkerware app owned by Retina-X as far back as 2017.
The hacker shared that they were “sorry” people’s privacy was breached. Customer data was revealed to the stalker, and, in 2018, the hacker cleared the company’s servers.
The FTC would like owner Johns and his company, Retina-X, to have 3rd party assessments regarding their information security program. However, after its second hack, Retina-X claimed it would shut down.
Steps to Take to Secure Your Phone (And Signs That You Might Have Stalking Apps on Your Device)
Do you suspect that someone may have used this type of technology on you in the past? This is how you can check.
First, verify whether your cell phone has been jailbroken. The FTC suggests that you do so through a “root checker” app. You can find this type of app in Google Play or your Apple Store. If you do discover your cell phone is jailbroken and mainly if you bought it new and did not make the change, you may be followed by stalkerware.
Get help from the police. Do not change, repair, or alter the phone until you have filed a police report and let the police department’s technical department and investigators review your phone. Print and save or screenshot any evidence you collect.
If stalkerware is part of a larger pattern of domestic violence, the FTC suggests getting in touch with a local domestic violence center in your area. Call 211 for a free telephone search of services.
If you have determined that the stalkerware is not illegal but want to remove it, restore your phone to factory settings. If you try and backup your phone from a previous installment, the apps you don’t wish to may persist.
If you have an Apple phone, go to the Apple Store for help and explain the situation. You can also call or email the phone manufacturer or your cell phone company for assistance.
If you still don’t feel safe or don’t want the bother of fixing your phone, purchase a new cell phone and erase and throw out the old one. Do not share your phone’s password with anyone you suspect might hack or add stalkerware to your phone. Scan your phone, from time to time, to see if it is jailbroken.
Whether or not you believe these types of apps have legitimate use or should be banned, most people would rather not be tracked themselves. Although it might be tempting to follow your children or employees, concerns arise when others might be given access to our social security number, driver’s license, location, and other private information. Let us know how you feel about stalkerware in the comments!
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