Apps designed to help people find their lost or stolen phones are now being used as spyware by stalkers.
There are dozens of free spyware apps in the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. Some are marketed to anxious parents wanting to track their children or spouses concerned about cheating partners. Others are sold as anti-theft tools to track stolen phones.
In order to get a first-hand look I decided to test one of these apps on myself, and transform my phone into a tracking device for a day.
This was the view a stranger had of my life
Once I discovered what the app was able to record and track I was given a chilling insight into how easy it would be for a jealous partner or vindictive ex to covertly observe their victim.
Dutch filmmaker Anthony van der Meer used the app to track my every move for a day. Mr van der Meer, who is in Australia to speak at the International Association of Privacy Professionals ANZ summit, made a documentary using a tracking app to trace his stolen phone. In less than a year it was viewed more than 6 million times.
I had no idea how easily my phone could be controlled remotely to see, hear and record what I said, everywhere I went and everything I did.
I consented to having the app downloaded and I knew I could be monitored at any time, but I wasn’t aware of exactly when I was being watched. And as I went about my usual morning routine, I soon forgot my phone was spying on me.
While the app icon was visible on my phone, there is a disguised version available with the innocuous title “system framework”. Apart from the icon there were no other signs my phone was compromised.
ABC News has chosen not to name the app used in the experiment, but it is available on the Android app store and is just one of many apps available.
The front and rear cameras, microphone, text messages and phone call logs were able to be remotely accessed.
Using nearby WiFi points and GPS data, my location could be tracked. Where I live, where I work and where I get my morning coffee was all visible.
This map shows my activity during the day I was being tracked.
Misuse of consumer tracking apps
Consumer spyware apps are increasing in popularity, according to Deakin University surveillance expert Dr Adam Molnar.
“Commercial spyware is being used by law enforcement and security intelligence, in countries around the world. The consumer side of that, what civilians can actually purchase, is very similar,” he said.
But there are differences, he said.
“Usually consumer spyware requires physical access to the device.”
How to stay safe:
- Review the apps on your phone
- Check your location settings
- Ensure you have a passcode on your phone
- Ensure your passwords are secure and not widely shared
- If you think you might be tracked call 1800 737 732
- Or visit the national DV counselling service website
Misuse of this kind of consumer spyware is already emerging. Police in at least two states have issued internal warnings about the app I used in this experiment.
Karen Bentley from The Women’s Services Network, an organisation which trains domestic violence workers, says she has seen similar apps used to stalk victims.
“I’ve been working with a woman whose phones were given to her and her children by her ex-husband,” she said.
“He installed an app on all three phones which tracks exactly where they were and also had a notification … if they went beyond a certain perimeter, and she had no idea.
“It’s easy for abusers to make people think they are going crazy. Trust your instincts, maybe get a new phone and secure the passwords you’ve got,” Ms Bentley warned.
Family and domestic violence support services:
Lawyer Veronica Scott, from the International Association of Privacy Professionals ANZ, said while downloading consumer spyware apps may be legal, the way you use them might not be.
“The potential legal problems are where you are using it in a way to record or track or collect information about somebody without their consent or knowledge,” she said.
Dr Molnar warned there were a range of other common apps which could reveal more information than we realise.
“It’s not just consumer spyware that is able to provide a really fine-grained, detailed visibility of what someone is doing on their device,” he said.
“It’s everyday products, services we use like Facebook or Snapchat.
“When they disclose geolocational info, that can actually be visible to someone else,” Dr Molnar warned.
Additional reporting by Paige Mackenzie