Skip to Content
Computing

The FTC has banned a company from selling stalkerware for the first time

October 23, 2019
A man's shadow behind a woman who is on her phone
A man's shadow behind a woman who is on her phoneGetty

The news: The US Federal Trade Commission has barred developers of three “stalkerware” apps from selling products to monitor consumers’ mobile devices. The apps were called MobileSpy, PhoneSheriff, and TeenShield, and they were (disingenuously) marketed as a way for people to monitor employees and children. Specifically, the FTC order targets Retina-X Studios and its owner, James N. Johns Jr. They have been ordered to delete any data collected from stalkerware apps and cease selling apps unless they can prove they will be used for “legitimate purposes.” Retina-X had sold more than 15,000 subscriptions to the three apps before it stopped selling them in 2018.

Why it’s significant: It’s the first time the FTC has brought a case against developers of stalkerware apps, which let people monitor others’ smartphone activity without their knowledge. There are many cases of these sorts of apps being used by abusive partners to spy on and control their victims. “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,” Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said. (There are also instances of emotional abuse by parents using “legitimate” location-tracking apps, as the Washington Post highlighted this week.)

Extra concerns: As well as letting people use their products for spying, the FTC said Retina-X failed to adequately secure the information collected from mobile devices, including encrypted passwords, usernames, messages, GPS locations, contacts, and photos. It said a hacker accessed the company’s cloud storage account twice between February 2017 and 2018 and deleted information. 

Read next: How “stalkerware” apps are letting abusive partners spy on their victims.

Deep Dive

Computing

Erik Prince wants to sell you a “secure” smartphone that’s too good to be true

MIT Technology Review obtained Prince’s investor presentation for the “RedPill Phone,” which promises more than it could possibly deliver.

Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry

The arrests of several top semiconductor fund executives could force the government to rethink how it invests in the sector.

Inside the software that will become the next battle front in US-China chip war

The US has moved to restrict export of EDA software. What is it, and how will the move affect China?

Hackers linked to China have been targeting human rights groups for years

In a new report shared exclusively with MIT Technology Review, researchers expose a cyber-espionage campaign on “a tight budget” that proves simple can still be effective.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.