The maker of an app called StealthGenie, which is marketed as tool to catch cheating spouses, has been arrested and indicted in what may be the first mobile spyware criminal court battle.
The app eavesdrops on calls and tracks users' locations and has been dubbed as one of a number of "stalker apps."
"Selling spyware is not just reprehensible, it's a crime," said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Leslie Caldwell. "Apps like StealthGenie are expressly designed for use by stalkers and domestic abusers who want to know every detail of a victim's personal life -- all without the victim's knowledge."
The prosecution is the first of its kind, and federal judges ruled the app broke the law by secretly monitoring phone calls, almost in real time. This is normally only legal for law enforcement.
StealthGenie ranges in price from $100 to $200 per year for the "platinum" version and allows buyers to track their target in a number of ways. A user of the app simply has to gain access to the other person's phone for a few minutes so that they can install StealthGenie. Once it is installed, almost anything is able to be tracked such as calls, texts, photos, web history and so on.
"The fact that it's running in surreptitious mode is what makes it so foul," said Cindy Southworth of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "They work really hard to make it totally secretive."
Hammad Akbar, who is the maker of the app and is from Lahore, Pakistan, was arrested in Los Angeles on Sept. 27. A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order that allows the FBI to temporarily disable the website that hosts the app, preventing buyers from being able to use it. The indictment was issued in Virginia, where the data center that hosts the StealthGenie site is located.
"As technology continues to evolve, the FBI will investigate and bring to justice those who use illegal means to monitor and track individuals without their knowledge," said Andrew McCabe, assistant director at the FBI's Washington Field Office.
While it seems as though the activity that StealthGenie conducts is outright illegal, the situation is a little trickier than that. For example, it is legal for a parent to eavesdrop on their child if that child is a minor. There also may be times when two adults consent to the service, such as monitoring elderly relatives who might have medical issues. Despite this, it seems as though the vast majority of users will be people using it to spy on their partners, which is not legal.
"According to our market research, the majority chunk of the sales will come from people suspecting their partners to be cheating on them or just wanting to keep an eye on their romantic partners," says the indictment.