FTC goes after ‘stalking app’ developers

Photo (c) Marco_Piunti - Getty Images

There are five simple steps consumers can take to make sure they’re safe

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) threw another punch to the developers of three large “stalking” apps on Tuesday. Regulators say the apps, in effect, kept a record of a person’s every step.

The FTC charges that Retina-X developed three mobile device apps -- MobileSpy, PhoneSheriff, and TeenShield -- that allowed purchasers to monitor mobile devices on which they were installed without the knowledge or permission of the device’s user. 

Retina-X Studios likes to think of its products as “cutting edge technology that helps parents and employers gather important information on devices they own.” The company’s owner, James M. Johns, Jr., is also named in the complaint.

Three apps

Here’s how the company promoted the so-called stalking apps:

MobileSpy: “Need to know if your child or employee is abusing their SMS text messages, GPS locations and mobile apps? Mobile Spy helps parents learn about their child’s smartphone and tablet activities.”

PhoneSheriff: “What does your child do on their mobile? Are you worried they are abusing their phone privileges? PhoneSheriff allows you to monitor actions and filter out those you don't want. You can even create a schedule for allowed usage.” 

TeenShield: “Know everything about your child's digital world to keep them safe.”

The complaint

The FTC argues that Retina-X’s apps supplied app purchasers with the ability to view sensitive information about device users. Those pieces of data run from monitoring the user’s physical movements to where they go and what they do online. As a sidebar issue, the devices that downloaded the app allegedly opened up added security vulnerabilities.

Another major segment of the complaint is that Retina-X and Johns failed to sufficiently secure any information that was collected from mobile devices. 

“This is our first action against a so-called ‘stalking app,’” said Andrew Smith, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Although there may be legitimate reasons to track a phone, these apps were designed to run surreptitiously in the background and are uniquely suited to illegal and dangerous uses. Under these circumstances, we will seek to hold app developers accountable for designing and marketing a dangerous product.”

The FTC didn’t demand that Retina-X shut down completely. The proposed settlement asks that Retina-X and Johns require purchasers to confirm that they will only use the app to monitor a child, an employee, or another adult who has given them written consent. On top of that, the developer has to place an icon with the name of the app installed on the mobile device; the app would be removable only by the parent or guardian who installed the app.

Protecting yourself against stalking apps

Like so many apps in app land, it’s not easy to pick out the good guys from the bums. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) says that there are easy steps consumers can take to stay vigilant.

Some red flags that might indicate that there is a stalking app on your phone may include:

  1. The “abuser” has physical access to your phone (like at your home or office).

  2. The “abuser” knows specific information about you (things that only you should know).

  3. Your phone battery drains faster than normal.

  4. There are unaware, unexplained charges on your credit card statement.

  5. You encounter problems turning your phone off.

“An increasing number of apps for smartphones and tablets are attempting to address the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and/or stalking,” NNEDV writes. “Some apps are screening tools for survivors and professionals to recognize abuse and find resources. Other apps are meant to be a tool to contact help during an emergency.”

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