In a first-ever case, the Federal Trade Commission took legal action Tuesday against a Florida firm that sold “stalkerware” to let people spy secretly on other people's smartphones and devices and track their calls, texts, photos, physical movements and browser history.
"These apps are not just creepy, they can put victims of stalking and domestic violence at profound risk,” FTC Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter told reporters.
She spoke as the consumer protection agency announced a court agreement with James N. Johns Jr. and his firm, Retina-X Studios LLC, of Jacksonville, Florida.
Parents use stalker apps to monitor their children's online behavior. Employers use them to track what their employees are doing on company-owned mobile devices.
Retina-X ran afoul of the consumer protection agency because it let app purchasers surreptitiously monitor almost everything on the mobile devices on which they were installed without the knowledge or permission of the device's users.
According to the FTC, Retina-X also did not make sure purchasers were using the apps for legitimate purposes.
Additionally, once purchasers installed the app on your phone, they could remove its icon so you would be unaware you were being monitored. And even with respect to legitimate users, the company failed to keep data — including children's information — confidential and safe.
Retina-X sold a total of more than 15,000 subscriptions to stalking apps called Mobile Spy, PhoneSheriff and TeenShield, the FTC said. The apps cost in the range of $89 to $100 a year, according to the firm's website.
"Stalking apps like the ones offered by Retina-X can be extremely dangerous; today's action makes clear that they are also illegal,” Slaughter said.