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.