The Spy in Your Pocket

There’s yet another emerging, unpleasant side-effect to the revolution of personal gadgets: cyberstalking.

By Zeid Nasser

For all the convenience and pleasure a mobile phone provides, it still apparently doubles as a personal tracking device.

Whether it’s in your pocket or purse, it acts as a beacon that informs the telecom operator where you are or where you’re going. It also tells software companies what you’re doing (searching, chatting, gaming, reading, ordering) and all this information can be used by spies and stalkers to bother you too.

As we liberally download applications onto our mobiles, and tick ‘Accept Terms’ without actually bothering to read them, there’s now a massive number of potential victims worldwide. And we shouldn’t forget the computers on our desks or laps which also include spyware we download. So any of us could be monitored or watched unaware on any device.

Apart from the global technology companies like Apple or Google who know too much about us already, this could also become a problem of a more personal nature, meaning a stalker or bully can use technology to specifically target you without you knowing that you’ve been compromised. That’s why cyber-stalking is now becoming a key aspect in social disorders and family issues. According to work carried out by the Cyberstalking Research Center, digital abuse is used in over 50 percent of domestic violence cases in the UK.

Such abusers, with spyware access, can gather information from your devices, view documents, photographs, or collect passwords. It gets particularly creepy when you realize that spyware has ‘remote control’ features which enable the spy to turn on a computers camera or microphone; which means they can see all and hear all!

This has become a serious challenge to law enforcement authorities. Police have to upgrade their technology skills to handle the rise in complaints and cases. Demand for forensic examination of devices is difficult to deal with. There could be hundreds of devices awaiting examination, which will result in postponing reports and, therefore, delaying trials and punishment of perpetrators.

Worryingly, the falling cost of spyware is fuelling this increase in criminal surveillance. Spyware that can control a computer costs as little as $35. It can be sent in an email to a victim and activated when the email attachment is opened. It could be disguised as a photo or a document that the user will gladly download and open. Once installed on a computer, the most basic functionality of spyware provides access to the user’s emails and instant message conversations.

On mobile devices, spyware takes matters further allowing abusers to listen to voice conversations.

It is appalling to witness human behavior in utilizing such mobile spying capabilities. Several cases reported in the United States have been by ex-wives whose estranged husbands bought mobile phones for their children, including spyware, to spy on their ex-spouses.

This is exactly what made an app called StealthGenie quite successful. However, its opportunistic creator from Pakistan, Hammad Akbar, was held by the FBI in California for questioning and his app is no longer available since the end of last year. By his own admission, the majority of the app’s sales come from people suspecting their partners to be cheating on them, or just wanting to keep an eye on them.

Following the incident, the FBI said it would continue to investigate and bring to justice those who use illegal means to monitor and track individuals without their knowledge. It’s interesting that intelligence agencies and governments have their own ‘legal’ means to monitor devices. That’s fine whereas StealthGenie isn’t, apparently.

On to another troubling development, it seems that stalkers who are not satisfied with just software spying can also obtain cheap spying gadgets.

A listening device that looks like an extension cord can be bought from Amazon for under $100. While a magnetic GPS tracking device that can be attached to a car, providing the location to a mobile phone, can be found online for as little as $40. It’s all very frightening.

Clearly, we need to be vigilant about spyware and devices. It’s a time to educate ourselves regarding online and mobile privacy. It has become necessary to do so, not only to protect your credit card balance, but your private life, too.