Wednesday, 15 April 2015 00:00

Technology, Smartphones and Spy Apps: 21st Century Surveillance on a Personal Level

The Map and the Territory

In Jorge Luis Borges’ brilliant short story, “On Exactitude in Science,” the cartographers of a certain kingdom fashioned a 1:1 scale map - one that was perfectly detailed and the same size as the kingdom itself.

I find this clever image to be an apt metaphor for what is now emerging in what could be called the “hyper-information age.” Our vast computing storage capabilities, coupled with the virtually instantaneous ability to digitally gather and sort information from billions of individual sources connected to the internet - computers, smartphones, surveillance cameras, etc. - has created a virtual mirror of the world we live in, a full-scale map, in essence, of our day-to-day reality.

mindThis map, or mirror, is incredibly detailed and interconnected - it is a virtual holographic multiverse of our own creation as a society, in which each individual piece of information can be connected with the rest, and where each fragment of that information may have powerful implications when tied to other significant fragments.

In other words, a single GPS fix from a smartphone, for example, when tied to another detail, such as a text message, or group of details, could be enough to form the basis of a criminal conviction. The same type of combination of details could also save the life of a kidnapped child, or give an oppressive government the information needed to imprison someone it deems a dissident.

It has been said that all technology is neutral and that how it is used is what determines whether its impact is positive or negative. And, of course, the hopelessly clichéd aphorism “Information is Power” is more true than ever, no matter how overused it has become.

The bottom line is that the technology is here to stay and the full-scale map/mirror of our world has become an integral influence on the way we live our daily lives.

The Fruit of the Tree of Information

Despite the risk of delving too deep into the metaphysical implications of what our interconnected digital map/mirror, I’d like to draw another parallel to literature, namely the creation story in the Genesis chapter of the Bible - the part where Adam and Eve gain self-awareness from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

Whether you believe in the Bible or not, the story could also be a metaphor for what has happened to us in the digital age. In a sense, we are tasting the fruit of the tree of information - the “tree” being the now seemingly limitless network of details that reflect our actions, thoughts and movements. A network that can be used to control us as individuals, but which also offers individuals a measure of control over our own lives and others as well.

And now that we have tasted the fruit, so to speak, we have to decide how to use the knowledge we have gained. We may not have become any more self-aware fundamentally, but we have created a technology-based network that is aware of us. This network is aware of the minutest details of our lives when accessed at the micro level.

For instance, if an intelligence or law enforcement agency chooses to examine the actions and movements of an individual, it can now do so in exhaustive detail, unless the individual is very adept in covering their tracks, or is completely disconnected from the Internet or any other digital network - a complete rarity in this day and age.

The average person these days owns a smartphone and regularly communicates online or over the phone. The average person also lives and operates within a system where surveillance cameras are ubiquitous, so even if they don’t carry a digital mobile device, it is often easy enough to track their movements, regardless. And with facial and voice recognition technology reaching new (and somewhat disturbing) levels of accuracy, it is very difficult for anyone to hide anywhere, if some entity with access to the technology wants to find them or track their movements and actions.

Judgment From Above

bulleWith the advent of sophisticated information gathering and processing capabilities, governments and the agencies thereof have been given almost godlike powers of observation over individuals. Like Santa Claus, the NSA and every other “authorized” agency or entity now knows when you’ve been sleeping, when you’ve been awake, when you’ve been good or bad - but, of course, what actually determines what is “good” or “bad” is a rather subjective judgment (for goodness’ sake...).

Edward Snowden’s leaks have served to give us a clearer picture of just how much information is collected from not only those who are suspected of wrongdoing or potential wrongdoing, but also that of ordinary people with no ties to terrorism or criminal activity.

The debate on how and why governments collect and analyze data regarding their own citizens and others, and whether or not they have a right to do so (and if so, how far these rights should extend) is the subject of a massive debate, a debate far beyond the scope of this article.

In fact, what I want to focus on, ultimately, is the question of how individuals should use their own access to information-gathering technologies - ones that essentially give us the ability to be our own spy agencies. We now have the capability as individuals to spy on our own family and peers, and that is what I want to explore, but there is an analogy to be made between the macro and micro aspects of surveillance in the digital age.

As Above, So Below

It has always seemed obvious to me that the way our society is structured on the grand scale is reflected on the small scale, e.g. the family unit or, to give another example, a small business. It’s a chicken-or-egg dilemma really, but it appears to me that the family unit resembles the way governments or other overarching entities, such as religious sects, operate.

Since families were around before governments or religions, I suppose you could say that the structures of the latter reflect the former. In other words, governments and religions, for the most part, are hierarchal, usually patriarchal, structures in which a (hopefully benevolent) central authority possesses the right (whether democratically granted or otherwise) to lead, judge and punish those under its dominion.

A Question of Degrees?

I think most people would agree, that regarding government intelligence gathering and surveillance, it’s not a matter of whether it should be allowed, but rather how far-reaching should it be.

Is it okay, in the interest of preventing terrorist attacks, to keep a close eye on the movements and communications of those who might be deemed as posing a potential threat? Probably the majority would say “yes.”

But should the government also be allowed to collect and store information regarding all of its citizens in the name of national security? The The documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed a level of surveillance on the part of U.S. intelligence agencies regarding ordinary citizens that many, if not the majority, find invasive.

The concept of privacy and the right thereof seems to have been trampled on, and not just because of the way it is being used by governments and other entities, but through the very nature of the technology itself. The very mechanisms that make our modern lives so conveniently connected are also, by their very nature, removing all the veils of privacy we once took for granted.

worldThe All-Seeing Eye

Until a half century or so ago, for example, when bugging devices began to be used fairly regularly by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the concept of shutting the windows and doors to gain privacy was a viable one. And even during the height of the Cold War (the first one) and the J. Edgar Hoover FBI eras, wiretapping and other forms of electronic surveillance were relatively limited, and were only used to monitor a tiny segment of the population, i.e., suspected criminals, subversives and political enemies.

Now, however, if an intelligence or law enforcement agency would like to scrutinize anyone, for whatever purpose or justification, it is ridiculously easy to do so.

Within minutes, using the technologies Snowden and others have described, the communications and movements of an individual can be revealed and examined in complete and minute detail.

No longer is it necessary to physically “plant a bug” in someone’s phone - or office, bedroom or hotel room, for that matter - it’s simply a matter of activating the built-in microphone on their mobile phone, whether the targeted individual is using it or not.

And other ‘smart’ technology, such as the latest generation of television sets and other devices that are part of the growing “Internet of things,” are capable of gathering information such as images, video, audio and records of usage.

In other words, our increasing digitized and interconnected environment is constantly monitoring our actions, whether this information is being sought out and accessed or not. That’s why many people shrug it off, saying “I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to worry about.”

Should the Average Person Be Concerned?

Many people feel safe in the knowledge that there is so much information being gathered, that no agency or entity would possibly have the time or inclination to monitor them individually, even if they, for example, download the occasional movie from a pirate site or commit some other small illegal act. The concept of safety in numbers gives them what some would consider a false sense of security.

Sure, when you download the latest season of your favorite cable TV series from Pirate Bay without paying the network, the odds are that no one will be breaking down your door to arrest you.

But imagine that you decide ten years from now to run for office, or apply for a job that requires a thorough background check, that something from your past that was recorded and filed away - a marital indiscretion, perhaps, captured in emails and phone calls, or a record of you driving 90 miles an hour after you were caught on video having one too many drinks in a bar - you might begin singing a different tune.

Unless you are an unusually circumspect and morally correct individual, there is most likely to be something in your past that could be used to embarrass or implicate you in some fashion. And, with the state of technology being what it is in the present, this “something” is not only likely to have been recorded and stored in some fashion, but in essence, will never go away.

That particular type of scenario may or may not ever become a reality for most people, but for those who like to ponder the potential of these technologies and the uses they are being put to already, these are very concerning questions indeed.

But, as I mentioned above, these larger societal dilemmas regarding the use of surveillance and information-gathering technology are not the real focus of this article. I merely wanted to point out that there is a parallel between what overarching entities are capable of in these terms and what is also possible on the micro-scale.

In other words, we as individuals now also have access to very powerful means of surveillance. It is now possible to spy extensively on one another - our spouses, our children, our employees. And, of course, in turn, they are also capable of spying on us…

The rest of this article will be dedicated to examining the current state of the surveillance potential available to individuals and the ethical and legal ramifications thereof.

But first, let’s take a look at how technology, particularly mobile technology (e.g. smartphones), has completely invaded and transformed our lives.

The Age of the Smartphone

What would be considered the first smartphone on the scene is a subject open to debate, but for all practical purposes, the technology has been around for less than two decades. The increase in the use of smartphones during that short period has been exponential, however, and the advances in their capabilities have been breathtakingly rapid, not to mention far-reaching in scope.

A few statistics to put things into perspective:

80 percent of all adults online now own a smartphone
More than 1.2 billion smartphones were sold in 2014, an increase of 28 percent since 2013
Mobile Internet use has now overtaken fixed Internet access
73 percent of American teens have access to a smartphone

phoneAnd why not own a smartphone? They have become incredibly cheap - a basic model which has almost all the power of a laptop from a few years ago can be purchased for $100 or less.

Smartphones are incredibly useful gadgets. With even the most inexpensive models, it’s possible to surf the net, take photos, play games, and, of course, make phone calls.

Sophisticated smartphones, such as the iPhone 6, come with a slightly heftier price tag but considering that the $399 (in the USA) model comes with 128 GB of storage, that’s still a pretty low price, especially considering what they are capable of.

For many people, an advanced smartphone such as the iPhone 6 is virtually all the computer they need. I have friends who rarely use a laptop or desktop outside of the workplace - a good smartphone is enough to meet their requirements for staying connected online.


 

The Downside

As useful as they are, smartphones do have their drawbacks. One of the obvious ones is that they are extremely addictive. I don’t think I need to point out the fact that we have become a society that spends what most would agree is far too much time online, and smartphones have exacerbated the problem.

In fact, our smartphone addiction has become a subject frequently addressed by social commentators, comedians, psychologists and ordinary people shaking their heads at the phenomenon. It is a legitimate concern, and one which we will further examine later in this article.

Another downside (besides the need for frequent recharging), is the fact that smartphones not only contain a lot of sensitive personal information. Although built-in security systems are improving, it’s still relatively easy for a thief with minimal tech skills to access the contents of a stolen smartphone.

Once a thief accesses the contents of a stolen smartphone, the information contained therein can be used in a number of ways. Financial data is probably the biggest concern, but smartphones contain a lot of other detailed personal information that can be used in a number of ways, such as performing identity theft.

But one of the biggest drawbacks of all regarding smartphones, is the fact that these devices can be used to gather and transmit a huge amount of information about a person while the device is in the user’s possession - and without them being aware of it.

Smartphones and Personal Privacy

When you think about it, there is no other window into a person’s personal life than their smartphone or tablet. Not only do these devices contain a huge amount of ‘static’ information, such as financial data, photos, videos, lists of contacts, emails, texts, chats, passwords, etc., they also can serve as a real time monitor into the user’s daily routine.

Many people are not fully aware of the fact that the data recorded, stored and transmitted by a smartphone can be accessed remotely. If you have remote access to someone’s smartphone (and potentially, almost anyone has - we’ll explain later), you may not only be able to access all the data stored inside the device, but you may also use the built-in GPS function to get a real time fix on the device’s location.

And as if that weren’t invasive enough, with the right surveillance software tools (which are more available than you may realize), a person or entity can remotely activate the built-in camera and microphone, essentially turning your smartphone into a very sophisticated spying device.

It’s scary enough to imagine that government and law enforcement agencies might have and use such capabilities, but the reality is that the average person has access to these spying methods as well.

Spyware for the Masses

The Free Dictionary’s definition of “spyware”: “Software that secretly gathers information about a person or organization.”

spywareMost people think of spyware as being essentially synonymous with ‘malware’ - as a ‘bug’ that infects your computer when you inadvertently click on the wrong link or visit a malicious website. This type of spyware is often used to gather information from multiple targets and is used for various purposes by unscrupulous hacker types.

The broad definition of spyware also includes whatever software intelligence and law enforcement agencies use to spy on individuals or organizations.

But the types of spyware we will be addressing in this article are also known as spy apps, mobile monitoring software and cell phone tracker, among other names.

What many people don’t realize is that these ‘spy apps’ are available for purchase by anyone, are essentially legal (at least to buy) and have capabilities far beyond what the average person might imagine.

In other words, anyone who has access to your smartphone or internet-connected tablet can install a spy app onto the device that is virtually undetectable and which can monitor essentially all the activity that occurs on it.

These spy apps are relatively cheap, and, depending on the version, can do everything from monitoring phone conversations in real time to taking video of the device’s surroundings using its built-in camera. All of this activity is monitored remotely and can either be stored or viewed in real time.

The cost of these spy apps is relatively low but in general, spy apps with advanced capabilities can be purchased for as low as $20-$35 per month, with some costing double that amount or more.

But the bottom line is that anyone, for a reasonably small investment, can have access to powerful surveillance tools that were once available only to professional entities.

What Are Spy Apps Capable Of?

There are many spy apps on the market, each with its own set of features and compatibility specs. Most have certain basic features in common.

Here is a list of the basic features offered by the typical spy app:

Phone Call Monitoring - This feature will record and store basic information regarding all phone calls made or received on a targeted device, including phone numbers, caller names, times and dates of calls, and call duration.

Email Monitoring - Allows the user of the app to access contents of emails, including contact information, and time and date stamps

SMS Monitoring - Access the contents of SMS messages, along with time and date stamps

Chat Monitoring - Most spy apps offer some form of chat monitoring. Some are limited to one or two chat platforms, other more advanced spy apps offer monitoring of almost every popular chat platform

Browsing History - Allows the user to view the URLs of all websites visited, including details about length of sessions, how often visited, etc.

Multimedia Monitoring - Allows the user to access videos, photos and audio files stored and shared on the device

Address Book, Calendar and Contacts Monitoring - Gives the user access to all contact lists, phonebooks, activities and calendar entries

GPS Monitoring - Records and stores details regarding geo-location and movements, often in real time. Some spy apps offer the ability to receive alerts when the device enters or leaves a designated zone - this capability is known as ‘geo-fencing’

Many companies who sell spy apps also offer premium versions of their products which include various advanced features. Others that sell at a higher price have only one version that already includes advanced features.

Some of the advanced features available:

Keylogger - A keylogger records all the keystrokes entered into the targeted device, which means the user will have access to passwords or any other text content

Live Phone Call Monitoring - Allows the user to record and/or listen in on live phone calls. Some spy apps can be configured to send an instant alert so that the user can monitor calls to and from designated numbers as they are occurring

Environment Monitoring - Includes spying using both the built-in camera and microphone of the device. Depending on the version, it is possible to record the audio environment and/or take photos and videos of the device’s surroundings

It should be noted here that, due to recent legal issues, many spy app makers no longer offer some of these advanced features - which leads us to our next segment...

questionAre Spy Apps Legal?

There is no simple, definitive answer to the question of whether or not spy apps are legal, partly because the laws regarding privacy vary depending on location, and the fact that this type of software can be used in various ways. There are, however, a few general legal guidelines that are fairly universal.

Keep in mind, however, that these guidelines are not definitive by any means, and if you are considering purchasing and using a spy app, you should consult with an attorney regarding the legal use of it.

I am not condoning or encouraging the use of these apps for any illegal purposes and my comments on their legal use are not intended to be considered as valid legal advice. You should be extremely careful and well-informed from a legal standpoint before you even consider installing a spy app on anyone’s phone or mobile device.

That being said, it is generally illegal to install and use a mobile monitoring software program on anyone’s smartphone or tablet without their explicit permission. The only general exception to this rule is in the case of minors. If you are the parent or legal guardian of a minor, it is generally legal in most places to install a spy app without the child’s knowledge or permission.

Below, we will further explore the legal and ethical aspects of the use of spy apps as we examine how and why they are typically employed. But first, a little more background regarding recent trends in the spy app industry.

Shakeups in the Spy App Industry

There has always been a legal gray area regarding the use and marketing of spy apps. Since they first began appearing on the market over a decade ago, makers of these apps have skirted a fine legal line.

plusIn the early days, the companies who sold these apps were fairly brazen in terms of marketing. One of the main selling points advertised was the use of mobile monitoring apps to catch cheating spouses. This particular use for spy apps was certainly one of the driving factors in their becoming so popular, and they are certainly an effective tool for doing so.

It is obvious that anyone actively cheating on a lover or spouse is likely to have used their mobile device for communicating with their secret partner. Having access to a record of phone logs along with the ability to intercept emails and text messages, etc., would be a powerful tool in revealing any clandestine activities on the part of a spouse or loved one.

The makers of these apps were acutely aware of this potential and often blatantly promoted their products with this in mind. Until fairly recently, the marketing of spy apps typically included phrases such as: “Is your spouse or partner cheating on you? Find out the truth once and for all!”

For years, there has been debate over whether this type of marketing, not to mention the use of these apps for such purposes, was legal. But until quite recently, the makers of spy apps managed to continue marketing their products in this manner.

However, in September 2014, the situation changed drastically when the creator of one of the most popular spy apps on the market, StealthGenie, was arrested and the company’s website was shut down.

The company’s CEO, Hammad Akbar, was arrested on charges of “conspiracy, sale of a surreptitious interception device and advertising a surreptitious interception device.”

This arrest sent shockwaves throughout the spy app industry. Immediately, many of the other makers of these apps began modifying their websites, and many started removing features considered “invasive” from their products - features such as live call monitoring and environment monitoring.

spy appsHowever, a few of the spy app companies still offer these types of features. For instance, two of the leading players in the industry, mSpy and FlexiSpy, still offer many of the advanced features, such as keylogging.

In the case of FlexiSpy, the company still markets their product as a way to catch cheating spouses. Since the firm is located in Thailand, they are not subject to the same laws as companies in the U.s. and Europe.

FlexiSpy continues to offer environment monitoring also, including audio recording of the device’s surroundings and the ability to take photos using the device’s built-in camera.

Once again, it is legal to purchase these apps, but how they are used is what determines their legality. As far as I know, it is not legal anywhere in the developed world to spy on a spouse without their permission to do so, although that is certainly not going to stop many people from using these apps for exactly that purpose.

At this point, I’d like to explore the specific main uses of spy apps, and the legal and ethical implications of doing so. Again, I am not condoning or recommending the use of these products, especially for illegal purposes, I am merely reporting on their common uses and the ramifications thereof.

The three most common uses for spy apps are:

  • Monitoring spouses or lovers
  • Monitoring children
  • Monitoring employees

Monitoring Spouses or Lovers

There are no reliable statistics on how the usage of spy apps breaks down in terms of the ratio of those who purchase and install them for catching a cheating spouse or lover, but it can be supposed that this purpose accounts for a sizeable percentage of sales.

Obviously, a good spy app would be very effective at catching a cheater and far less expensive than hiring a private investigator. Using a spy app for this purpose is also much easier than trying to physically spy on a person’s actions and more effective than trying to extract the truth through questioning the suspected cheater.

Some would argue that a person has the right to spy on a spouse if they have a good reason to suspect that he or she is having an affair. In fact, much of the early marketing of these apps suggested that very thing, i.e., “You have a right to know the truth!”

However, there are many who would beg to differ.

Most law enforcement agencies, for instance, will tell you that it is illegal to electronically spy on a person, even if it is your legal spouse. There are some gray areas, but in general, the consensus seems to be that it is not legal to use these devices to catch a cheating spouse or lover; in fact, it is generally considered illegal to install and use this type of software without the other person’s consent, and it is difficult to imagine anyone giving their consent - especially if they are cheating. (Interestingly, there are some reports of partners allowing these apps to be installed on each other’s smartphones in an effort to prove that they are indeed being faithful).

And it’s not just law enforcement agencies who are concerned. Women’s rights advocates and domestic abuse watchdog organizations are particularly concerned about the use of these products, and they have been labeled by many as “stalker apps.”

It certainly would seem to be a valid concern that these apps might be used by abusive partners and could lead to an increase in violent behavior. On the other hand, finding out the truth one way or another might put an end to the often torturous suspicions that many people harbor regarding their spouse’s or partner’s behavior. And if a person is revealed to be innocent, it could be argued that these apps might have a positive effect on a marriage or relationship.

The inverse might also be true. If a partner is proven to be cheating, it might allow the other to get on with their lives after taking appropriate actions, such as getting a divorce, moving out of a shared home, or simply splitting up.

That being said, the threat of legal consequences is not enough to deter some people from using these apps for this purpose, and the continued brisk sales of this type of software worldwide suggests that this is indeed the case.

Monitoring Children

Using a spy app to monitor a child is arguably the best and possibly the only legitimate use of the technology. Certainly, it appears that this is the only clear-cut legal use of smartphone monitoring software - in general, it is legal to use these apps on your own children under the age of 18 or any minor under one’s legal guardianship.

And it’s not at all difficult to make a case for doing so:

There are a number of reasons a parent might wish to monitor a child’s online activities. These concerns range from relatively minor ones, such as feeling the need to control the amount of time a child spends online, to much more serious issues, such as protecting kids from sexual predators or online bullies.

I’ve already mentioned the addictive aspects of smartphones, and it’s no secret that that the average kid spends what many parents would consider an unhealthy amount of time playing games, chatting with friends or otherwise engaged in staring at a smartphone screen.

Too much time online can mean that a child’s performance in school begins to suffer or that they begin to withdraw into a virtual world that affects their socializing skills. Being online for too many hours can also pose a danger to a child’s health - eye strain and sleep pattern disturbances are among the concerns, and a child who is constantly using a smartphone may simply not be getting enough fresh air and exercise.

Beyond these concerns are the more serious dangers associated with a child or teen’s online activity. Online bullying has become a very serious problem in recent years. It has been found that one in five kids have been subjected to some form of online bullying and in some cases, this has led to extremely tragic results.

Impressionable and insecure kids (and what kid isn’t impressionable and insecure at one age or another?) have been led to suicidal behavior after being tormented by online bullies. It is a very real threat and even if a child doesn’t end up wanting to harm himself or herself, it can be very difficult to live down or forget the effects of the type of bullying that occurs routinely in every school and community.

Similarly, there is also the issue of “sexting” and inappropriate sexual behavior by kids online. Sexting is far more common than most parents realize and many children are being exposed to sexual content at an early age. A spy app can help a parent to monitor this type of activity and intervene before things get out of hand.

Other reasons parents choose to monitor their childrens’ behavior online include making sure they are not getting involved with the wrong crowd, using alcohol or drugs, or engaging in other inappropriate behavior with their peers.

Many spy apps can be configured to alert parents when designated keywords are used, or when certain phone numbers are calling or being called. This can be a very effective way of monitoring a child’s behavior, even if the parent doesn’t have the time to be constantly checking up on them.

But by far, the most frightening scenarios involving kids’ activities online are the possibilities of their becoming victims of sexual predators. Children are easy prey for those who lurk online looking for victims. Often, these creeps pose as other children in an effort to lure them into meeting up in person and the potential consequences are almost too terrible to contemplate.

A spy app can be an extremely powerful parenting tool, both for monitoring a child’s own behavior and for preventing others from harming them.

gps location

Another useful (and potentially life-saving) spy app feature that may be attractive to concerned parents is the GPS location function included with most of these products. The ability to monitor a child’s whereabouts in real time is almost worth the price of purchase, in my own estimation.

Many spy apps also offer a feature I mentioned above, known as geo-fencing. This function allows you to designate “safe” or “restricted” areas on a map, so that you will be alerted when a child enters or leaves one of these areas. This is very handy for working parents who might, for example, want to make sure the child doesn’t leave the house after arriving home from school.

Geo-fencing can also be used to prevent a child from going to a prohibited area or from visiting the home of someone considered a bad influence.

Another useful aspect of the GPS location feature is in the event that the device is lost or stolen. Kids are notorious for losing or misplacing phones, and this feature can help to recover an expensive investment and possible even catch a criminal. (Another feature many spy apps offer is the ability to remotely disable or even ‘wipe’ a phone in the case of loss or theft)

The use of a spy app to monitor a child could be considered a must in today’s world. It can be argued that a parent has not only the right, but the responsibility, to monitor a child’s online activities. And considering all the potential dangers associated with being online, not to mention the fact that most parents do not have the time to keep a close eye on their kids, it is a strong argument, indeed.

Monitoring a child’s online behavior with a spy app is the one use of this technology that I definitely feel is justified. However, some parents may feel that this is a breach of trust and an invasion of a child’s privacy - a position that i respect.

In that case, a parent might find a solution through letting the child know that he or she is being monitored, but that choice should be left up to the parents. In some cases, it may be better not to inform a child that a spy app has been installed.

Monitoring Employees

In many companies, it is common practice to issue smartphones or tablets to employees. Often, employers choose to install a spy app onto such devices in the interest of keeping productivity high and protecting company data.

Although it is generally considered illegal to install spyware onto an employee’s smartphone or tablet without their knowledge and consent - even one owned and issued by the employer - it is still standard practice in many firms.

As an employee, it would be foolish to assume otherwise.

workThere are certainly some valid arguments from the employer’s point of view. Not only did they spend the money to purchase the device, it stands to reason that the smartphone, tablet or any other Internet-connected apparatus should be used only for work-related activities.

It’s hard to blame an employer for wanting to make sure that an employee isn’t using a company-issued smartphone to hang out on Facebook or watch YouTube videos while on the clock.

Spy apps are also very useful for monitoring employees in other ways, as well. For instance, if a salesperson is supposed to be on a call to a client, the GPS location feature is an easy way to make sure they are where they are supposed to be.

Monitoring apps can also be an effective tool for maintaining productivity. A spy app can be used to keep a record of an employee’s specific work habits, so that time studies can be easily made regarding their performance.

Corporate espionage is becoming increasingly common, and a spy app offers at least some measure of protection against an employee’s sharing confidential account information or other company secrets with the competition.

Aside from the legal implications, it is certainly easy to understand why an employer would choose to install one of these apps on a company-issued device, and it should be assumed that most companies do so regularly.

How Do Spy Apps Work?

Although there are some variations between products, most spy apps work essentially the same way.

Most of the companies who sell such products offer monthly contracts or longer. Some have monthly, quarterly and yearly contract offers, others have six month contracts, etc.

When you choose and purchase a spy app, you’ll first have to download the software and install it onto the targeted phone. Depending on the product and its compatibility, it may or may not require a jailbroken phone for installation. It is important to check the compatibility of each product before purchasing it.

Spy apps require direct access to the targeted phone. In virtually all cases, you’ll need the access code for the device in question.

usMost spy apps, particularly the more popular ones such as mSpy or FlexiSpy, are relatively easy to install, even for non-tech types. Others can be a bit more tricky, but most companies offer troubleshooting support through their websites. You can check out our tests and reviews on this website.

Once installed, the customer can set up their own secured private account where the targeted device’s collected data can be accessed and viewed on the accounts Control Panel. Most of these apps begin collecting the information automatically, with little or no configuration required.

Nearly all of the popular spy apps, however, offer customized options, such as the above-mentioned geo-fencing designations and other flexible parameters, such as keyword alerts.

In general, these apps are user-friendly and intuitive, requiring few technical skills on the part of the user.

The leading spy apps are usually available for almost every brand of smartphone and most operating systems, including iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry and Windows devices. However, the available features typically vary from one brand to another, so it’s important to make sure you know what you are purchasing and if it will work as expected on your particular device.

Conclusion

As we explored in the beginning of this article, the sheer amount of personal information that is automatically collected and stored by the technologies that surround us is nearly incomprehensible in scale.

The potential use of this information poses a number of legal and ethical questions, both on the macro and micro scale.

Considering the monitoring of citizens by government and law enforcement agencies with little or no oversight, it would seem to many people that it is somewhat ironic and hypocritical that these same entities would seek to control our own use of surveillance technologies on a personal level.

Information is indeed power, and nearly everyone, it seems - from the NSA, to Google, to random unseen hackers, various corporations, even our own employers and spouses - are or may be collecting and using our personal information to their advantage.

It only stands to reason that each of us, as individuals, has the right and perhaps a very real need to gather as much information as possible regarding the ones we care for and are responsible for.

It may truly be a question not of whether or not we have a right to monitor others, but more of where to draw the line, just as that concept applies to our government.

It is up to each individual to decide how these technologies should be used.

In my own life, for instance, I don’t believe I would ever be tempted to use a spy app to monitor my husband, even if I suspected him of an extramarital affair. Personally, it’s not in my nature to snoop on my partner, and if I ever lose the feeling of trust that our relationship is based on, I would prefer to just dissolve our marriage and move on. (in fact that's what I have done in the past)

If I thought he was having an affair, I would ask him. If he said no, I think I would tend to believe him, but if I didn’t, I don’t think I would personally resort to spying on him.

But that’s my individual take on the subject - another person might not feel the same way.

On the other hand, we do monitor our children’s Internet activity, but we have decided to tell them about it. It is not our policy to keep a close watch on everything they do online, in fact, we believe it is sufficient that they know that they might be monitored at any time, and that they would lose their smartphone privileges if we were to discover any inappropriate activity on their part.

This approach seems to work for us, and our kids knew when we bought them their smartphones that this would be part of the deal. They had no problems accepting the conditions.

Other spouses or parents may choose a different approach and some may never choose to install a spy app on anyone’s phone. The bottom line, however, is that this technology is out there, and is more commonly used than many people may realize.

phonesEveryone should be aware of its existence and that is one of the main motivations I had in writing this article. You may be already being monitored and I believe you should at least know that it is easily available and that it has powerful capabilities. When I first found out about spy apps and how powerful and inexpensive they are - not to mention how easily available - I was shocked.

Since then, I have learned a lot about the technology and I have written several articles regarding their use. I have also found a use for them in my own life - namely to protect and monitor my own children.

One thing that seems certain is that this technology is not going away anytime soon, even if the authorities try to outlaw spy apps altogether, which is doubtful.

Once again, you should be very careful if you are planning to purchase and use one of these apps and you should consult a legal expert before doing so. Don’t use this article as a guide to the legal implications of their use and keep in mind that privacy laws vary from place to place.

I hope you find this article useful and I hope it makes you more aware of a technology you may not have even know existed until now. At any rate, if you choose to purchase and use a spy app, I hope you will use it responsibly.

 

Last modified on Saturday, 30 May 2015 05:00