First time, the Federal Trade Commission banned a company making stalkerware — software that is used to secretly track the location of a cell phone user — from being in the surveillance app industry.
Wednesday’s action is for the SpyFone marketer, Puerto Rico-based Support King LLC and its CEO Scott Zuckerman. Such commercial surveillance products secretly obtain unfettered access to someone’s smartphone, leading to serious harm, the FTC said in a statement on its website.
SpyFone was promoted by Support King as a tool for monitoring the activities of employees and children. The FTC stated that it failed to protect domestic abusers and stalkers from using SpyFone for surveillance.
The company’s products allow the installer to monitor an individual’s online activity including video chats, text, and even secretly activate the microphone to record calls and video.
FTC discovered that SpyFone is sneaky. It does not appear on phones after being installed. However, its developers were negligent in protecting data collected from unsuspecting victims. According to the FTC, information belonging to around 2,200 people was compromised by a hacker who accessed the company’s servers.
An email requesting comment was not immediately answered by SpyFone. It was sent to the sole contact address.
Rohit Chopra, FTC commissioner, stated in a statement that “Federal agencies are long lax when it comes down to allowing companies the peddle surveillance products without impunity.”
Online watchdogs led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto have long complained of rampant abuse of stalkerware, particularly in targeting victims of domestic violence.
“Practically speaking this is a bold step by the FTC, but now they’ll have to follow it and enforce,” Eva Galperin (eFF cybersecurity director), said via email. It might signal the end of stalkerware. However, even if this is true, it is still a lengthy process and there are many things that could go wrong.
Chopra said civil action by the FTC is not enough to “meaningfully crackdown on the underworld of stalking apps.” He urged the use of criminal laws including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, to combat its use.
According to the FTC, SpyFone’s vendors will be required to erase all data collected through their stalkerware apps, and notify people who have been affected by the products.