Seventh Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics →

Mr. Brightside’s Watching You

  • AuthorNora Dunne
  • Published Friday, April 4th, 2014
  • Comments4

In the old days, suspicious spouses who wanted to keep tabs on their partners had limited options. They could rifle through pockets for cryptic receipts, check shirt collars for lipstick stains or hire private investigators to stake out seedy motels.

Today jealous lovers have a lot more strategies at their disposal. They can scroll through unmanned cellphones for call logs and text messages. They can sneak onto Facebook and email accounts.

And for the truly neurotic, highly distrustful types, there are products like mSpy to do the dirty work. The “mobile monitoring software solution” is a smartphone application that logs all of a user’s activity. It records calls, texts, emails, messages from other apps, GPS locations, website history, calendar events, address book contacts, photos, videos and every keystroke made. The software can even be set up for bugging to record conversations that go on in the phone’s presence.

This is how it works: Paranoid boyfriend buys a subscription to the app (the “premium” package costs $69.99 for one month, though rates are cheaper if you commit to a longer duration). Then he installs it on his girlfriend’s phone when she’s not looking. If that’s too tricky to pull off, the boyfriend can buy a phone preloaded with the app and give it to his girlfriend as an anniversary present. After that, the boyfriend simply logs into his online account, where he can view all of his beloved’s activity.

So how the does mSpy rationalize this ethically murky product? As noted on its legal agreement, “It is a considered federal and/or state violation of the law in most cases to install surveillance software onto a mobile phone or other device for which you do not have proper authorization and in most cases you are required to notify users of the device that they are being monitored.” This is all according to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (cellphones are considered computers under this law).

Then in large, blue, italicized font: “We absolutely do not endorse the use of our software for illegal purposes.” The agreement explains that to install the software on a phone, you must own the phone or receive written consent from the phone’s owner.

On the surface, the mSpy website markets the software as a tool for parents to monitor their children and for companies to monitor their employees. It also mentions the benefits of installing it on your own phone: backup, storage and protection from loss or theft.

Scattered about the website are customer testimonials from parents and business owners. There are scary stats about teen drug use, rape, suicide and cyberbullying. There are corny marketing lines, such as “Truth is a treasure worth digging for.”

While it’s easy to pinpoint the potential (but still creepy) benefits of the product’s so-called intended purposes — protecting child safety or keeping tabs on worker productivity — the company does little to dissuade the more nefarious options. Its homepage links to some of its press coverage, to headlines such as “mSpy: A terrifying app for spying on another smartphone or tablet user” and “Spy software lets you track a partner’s movements.”

Its “Buy Now” webpage has a long list of product features. At the very top is “Stealth/Undetectable: Your use of mSpy will go unnoticed. This app runs in an invisible mode so that it’s impossible for the target device user to detect its presence on the phone.” But if a spy is legally required to notify the phone’s user, isn’t “stealth” a moot point? Why, then, does the company broadcast it so prominently?The media has certainly focused on the product’s criminal uses. And the company has not denied them.

“We do have quite a large portion of our customers who use mSpy specifically to catch a cheating spouse,” said employee Tatiana Ameri in an interview with ABC 22, a local TV station in Ohio.

The company also shrugs off responsibility. In an interview with Forbes, founder Andrei Shimanovich likened the situation to gun sales. “If you go out and buy a gun and go shoot someone, no one will go after the gun producer,” he said.

Of course, mSpy is just one example of a plethora of tools available to snoopers. TopSpy, Spymaster Pro and StealthGenie software offer similar services, and they, too, are officially marketed toward parents and employers. And though not as thoroughly invasive, there are also many free and legal phone apps to help out the nosy — mostly GPS trackers and schedule synchronizers.

On the flip side, apps to help a person combat espionage seem to be just as plentiful. One self-destructs text messages, another hides your photos and videos and a third blocks other apps from recording your voice.

Mutually mistrustful partners (who are both Android users) can just cut to the chase and install Couple Tracker. It sends all the usual information to both parties involved in the relationship.

Let’s not forget about social media, a notorious source for gathering intelligence on, well, anyone. A 2013 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking examined why people use Facebook to spy on their partners. Using college students, the study showed that individuals with anxious and insecure attitudes about romantic relationships are most likely to stalk their sweethearts on the social network. The authors suggest that any information found — truly disreputable or not — may only exacerbate anxieties and strain relationships. This brings up a larger question: Just because you can do something, should you?

In a 2011 survey, 35 percent of women and 30 percent of men said they have checked their spouse’s or partner’s email or call history without them knowing. For married women, the stat jumps up to 41 percent. About a third of both men and women said they would secretly track their spouse or partner using a cellphone or other electronic device. The survey, conducted by electronics shopping and review website Retrevo, sampled 1,000 people in the United States distributed across gender, age, income and location.

Digital technology certainly makes it easy to invade someone’s privacy, though the ethics behind such actions are still as shaky as they were in the lipstick and collar days. It’s also ironic during a time when many protest against government surveillance and companies like Google tracking user data.

Nora Dunne is a Chicago-based freelance writer and full-time editor whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Metro newspapers and Kirkus Reviews. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2010.

4 Responses to “Mr. Brightside’s Watching You”

  1. Regina says:

    I found this article incredibly disturbing. The
    fact that you can install spyware on someone’s phone and track their every move
    reveals the negative side of the advancement of technology. The company says
    their product can be used to track the actions of children and employees, and
    should only be used with informed consent. However, the point the author raises
    that they don’t discourage the illegal use of their app makes it clear that
    ethics are not the primary concern of this company. Even if it were used with
    children and employees with informed consent, I still don’t think anyone has a
    right to monitor people’s communication like that. So many of our interactions
    today are over digital forms of communication that this app is akin to having someone
    recording what we say in real life. Installing this app on a loved one’s phone
    is not the same as checking for perfume on a collar or a lipstick stain. It
    goes far beyond that, tracking someone’s every interaction. If someone is that
    suspicious of their partner, they should have the courage to talk to them face
    to face, because in my opinion, installing this app is just as unethical as
    cheating. Both are forms of damaging someone’s trust, and can bring harmful
    results.

  2. angelic venegas says:

    I was aware of tracking devices but not apps with the same
    power. It’s distributing that there is products out there like mSpy but I
    understand their intention. My mom was very strict growing up and often I would
    spy her or my stepdad parked across the street or a couple blocks down from the
    party or park they told me I could meet friends at. I felt disrespected and
    they violated my trust. I was a respectful kid that didn’t get in much trouble
    so I never mentioned that it bothered me till I was older. I let my good
    behavior make their excessive stalking look wasteful and foolish. It’s one
    thing if you’re tracking your kid and their activity because they’re under age
    and your responsibility. It’s another unethical thing when it’s your boyfriend,
    girlfriend or spouse. If you’re going to track them, they need to know and no
    significant other is going to agree to that without a fight. Yet as a jealous
    girlfriend and now ex-girlfriend I can’t say much. It’s easier to talk the talk
    than walk the walk. I still know my ex-boyfriends Facebook password and still
    check his messages, along with checking his computer history. That’s unethical
    and crazy. I tell him about it when I see something that bothers me and he just
    says I’m crazy and changes passwords to things. He seems to have just accepted
    that part of me. It’s still not right through and I would throw a fit if the
    roles were reversed. They say the people who don’t trust, use tracking devices
    or are looking for their partner to mess up is because they are the guilty ones
    who have something to hide.

  3. Olivia Mavec says:

    The technological information in this article does not surprise me. Of course there are companies out there utilizing new technology that can be easily installed on smartphones to monitor the movements of another. I am not saying that this is ethical. I am pointing out the reality of our current situation, living in a fast-paced technological world where everything is made easily accessible…even our significant other’s actions when we are not there to witness those actions. It does not surprise me either that the company uses language to circumnavigate the illegal issue entirely. I think this company capitalizes on the fact that most married couples end in divorce these days for various reasons but, one of the obvious ones is that there is a lot of mistrust in a marriage which ends in divorce. This is not only true for marriages but even for those couples who are simply dating. Trust is key in any relationship. 41% of married women have checked their spouse’s phone. This statistic is evidentiary of such mistrust that is common in relationships. With technology at our finger tips these days, I am not surprised by the amount of unethical practice of such companies like mSpy. Yes, it is extremely unethical to spy on your significant other but, people will do it anyways. I completely agree with the author’s last statement: “It’s also ironic during a time when many protest against government surveillance and companies like Good tracking user data.” Of course, it’s not okay for the government (a mass group of people) to spy on individuals but, an individual thinks it’s okay to spy on another. Public versus private comes into play here. Privately, an individual will think it is ethical to spy on another in this country. Publicly, people think it is unethical to spy on others in this country. I’ll be interested to see how many crimes are committed as a result of this new technology.

  4. Marissa says:

    The ethics of this situation has much more to do with relationships than the technology itself in my opinion. I agree with Regina that this article is a little disturbing in the fact this happens every day in our world, but I find myself to be more concerned with the significant others that use this app rather than the app alone.

    The concept of spying on your employees or significant others is what led to the creation of an app like this. There is definitely some responsibility on the part of the mSpy, but I think more of it lies with the users of the product. The morals of installing mSpy on your partner’s phone are a personal matter, but ethically I think it’s wrong just because it’s so blatantly dishonest. If you were to make your partner/employee aware that they were being monitored, it would be a different story. But secretly watching peoples’ every move is a little ridiculous. The lack of trust in a relationship required for that to happen means bad things for that relationship already. If you’re so suspicious about a person you install a stealth program, you probably shouldn’t be involved with that person. With business, I think there’s only so much an employer has a right to control or know. People have the ability to separate their professional and personal lives and beliefs. If the company has some sort of privacy policy or morality clause, that’s one thing, but just making sure your employees don’t say bad things about the CEOs over text is too much.

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