The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) this week announced that it has banned stalkerware app maker SpyFone and its CEO, Scott Zuckerman, from the surveillance business.
SpyFone is marketed as an application that provides people with the ability to monitor their children’s activity on an Android or iOS device. The app can also be used to monitor “employees or other consenting adults,” the company says.
The FTC has decided to ban SpyFone over allegations that the company harvested user data without their knowledge and then shared that information with third parties. A hidden hack, the FTC says, was used to monitor people’s phone use, online activities, and physical movements.
According to the FTC, the company sold “real-time access to their secret surveillance, allowing stalkers and domestic abusers to stealthily track the potential targets of their violence.”
Furthermore, the commission argues that the application lacked basic security capabilities, thus exposing the device owners to further hacks and other cyber threats. Harvested information was not encrypted and the company did not ensure that only authorized users had access to it.
Support King, which did business as SpyFone.com, and its CEO were banned from “offering, promoting, selling, or advertising any surveillance app, service, or business.” The FTC also ordered the company to erase all of the information it has illegally harvested from the owners’ devices, and to inform them that the application had been secretly installed.
SpyFone’s installation on a device requires bypassing a broad range of an Android phone’s restrictions, and the stalkerware company also shared details on how the app could be hidden so that the user would not be alerted to the surveillance activity.
In some cases, the FTC says, devices had to be rooted to access functions such as email monitoring. This could void warranties and expose devices to further risks. The application also allowed customers (those who purchased the app) to monitor the targeted user’s video chats and view their location in real-time.
“The stalkerware was hidden from device owners, but was fully exposed to hackers who exploited the company’s slipshod security. This case is an important reminder that surveillance-based businesses pose a significant threat to our safety and security. We will be aggressive about seeking surveillance bans when companies and their executives egregiously invade our privacy,” Samuel Levine, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said.