Apps like StealthGenie make mobile spyware accessible to anyone

 

We take our smartphones with us, basically everywhere. They are our personal assistants, our thought banks, our communicative links to others in our world. 22% of the world’s population uses a smartphone – and thanks to this awesome technology, all of those people are able to connect. There is a dark side to smartphones, though. A very dark side indeed. It’s the side where all that ‘everywhere’ and ‘everything’ device you carry around nearly 24 hours a day becomes completely accessible to someone else, without your knowledge or consent. And it’s not just malware fiction. It’s real.

Maker of StealthGenie spying app indicted by U.S. law enforcement

Right now, in Virginia, there is a federal indictment being brought against a man named Hammad Akbar for creating and selling a mobile spying app called StealthGenie. Akbar has been arrested by authorities for not only violating federal wiretapping laws, but also actively marketing his product to people who don’t own the targeted device – i.e., “people looking to surreptitiously monitor their spouse or romantic partner.

What, exactly, do we mean when we say monitoring?

  • Secretly recording mobile phone calls
  • Secretly siphoning text messages
  • Secretly collecting emails
  • Secretly accessing a device’s address book, calendar entries, photos, and videos
  • Secretly turning on a device’s microphone, to monitor conversations up to 15 feet away

Akbar is being indicted because he created and marketed a mobile spyware app. This is not much different than what companies like The Hacking Team and FinFisher do when they sell surveillance malware to governments. And yet, the makers of governmental malware do not currently face any legal repercussions at all.

Mobile. Malware. Morality.

Legally speaking, malware is a shotgun.

You can manufacture it, and you can sell it, but you have to be really careful about how you market it. “Shotguns for sale for your next murderous rampage!” doesn’t really fly in banner ads, but “Shotguns for Home Defense” does. Similarly, you can’t say, “Malware to spy on your cheating ex-”, but you can say, “Malware to monitor your children.”

As we all know, however, people use both shotguns AND malware for purposes other than their marketed use.

This use-outside-of-marketed-purpose is the real problem, and it’s why both malware and guns are so controversial. U.S. feds are pursuing StealthGenie because their marketing department goofed up. This is no doubt a positive development. There are plenty of other companies that will continue to create – and more subtly market – mobile spyware technologies, though. And individuals who wish to use such technologies will continue to do so – both with and without malicious intent.

Is spyware ever legitimate?

Should companies that make such technologies for monitoring employees, or children, or the elderly, be legally allowed to do so when their products are also used by others to secretly monitor anyone else whose smartphone they have physical access to?

Is this StealthGenie advertisement seriously real!?

Imagine what it would be like if your spouse, or your ex-, or even a college roommate decided to watch everything you did with your smartphone. Is that not creepier – and perhaps even more dangerous – than a government that keeps an eye on its citizens’ Internet behavior in the interest of national security?

Smartphone spyware like StealthGenie is just about as close to invisible mind reading as you can get. Legal authorities should be commended for indicting Akbar, but the publicity surrounding this indictment needs to be treated as a wake up call. Hacking and tracking is no longer the realm of shadowy geeks with decades of technical expertise, and it’s no longer just the government playing with the big guns. Mobile spyware is cheap, real, and so easy to use that anyone can pull the trigger.

Don’t rely on governmental intervention alone to prevent it. Get protected.