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MIT Technology Review

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

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A man's shadow behind a woman who is on her phoneA man's shadow behind a woman who is on her phone

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.