For the First Time, the FTC Has Banned a Company from the Surveillance Business

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has just, for the first time, banned a company from the surveillance app business. The indictment: creating so-called “stalkerware” — apps or software that secretly track a mobile user’s activities and location.

Support King — which conducts business publicly as SpyFone and says its service is for monitoring children and employees — has done precious little to stop stalkers and abusers from using its services to surveil their victims, the FTC said.

Leave The Spying To 007, Please

Stalkwerware apps are banned by major app stores like Google and Apple, but can still be downloaded directly from the web. In addition to keeping an eye on kids and employees, the software has been marketed as a tool to catch infidelity. SpyFone could be installed at a phone’s root level and was capable of monitoring everything from email to video chats — a premium version even allowed users to covertly turn on the phone’s microphone and record conversations.

In the United States, concerns over these types of apps are no small matter. Stalking impacts as many as 7.5 million people every year and 25% of victims report some form of technology being used to stalk them, according to the Stalking Prevention Awareness & Resource Center (SPARC). On top of its capacity for misuse, SpyFone was also not especially careful with its data:

  • The FTC said information on 2,200 people was compromised in a hacker’s breach of the company’s server.
  • In addition to banning SpyFone and its CEO Scott Zuckerman from the surveillance business, the FTC ordered the company to delete all information collected through its stalkerware apps and to alert those who have been victimized by its services.

“Practically speaking, this is a bold move by the FTC, but now they will have to follow through and enforce it,” Eva Galperin, cybersecurity director at Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Associated Press. “It might be the beginning of the end for stalkerware, but even if that is true, it’s a long process and there is a lot that can go wrong between now and then.”

Charges Coming? FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra said he hopes law enforcement steps in where his organization’s powers end, urging the consideration of criminal charges under some combination of the “Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Wiretap Act, and other criminal laws to combat illegal surveillance.”

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