John* tapped out a simple text message to his wife in January 2016. “I love you,” it read.
But this wasn’t the only message she saw. Unbeknownst to John, his wife had bugged his smart phone. She was spying on John, eavesdropping on all of his texts and multimedia messages, and tracking his every move through the device’s GPS.
She was also stealing all of John’s photos. In one slightly blurred picture, John, a police officer in a small town in the southwestern United States, is knelt over a suspect, who is face down on the curb. In another photograph, John is taking a selfie wearing a dress shirt and a black tie. A third picture shows an email exchange with Facebook’s law enforcement help team, revealing that John was requesting data on a target of an investigation.
These messages and pictures, including some of the couple’s more intimate moments, were taken directly from John’s cellphone by his wife, using a piece of consumer surveillance software made by American company Retina-X. In an ironic twist, the software is called PhoneSheriff.
John is just one of tens of thousands of individuals around the world who are unwitting targets of powerful, relatively cheap spyware that anyone can buy. Ordinary people—lawyers, teachers, construction workers, parents, jealous lovers—have bought malware to monitor mobile phones or computers, according to a large cache of hacked files from Retina-X and FlexiSpy, another spyware company.
The breaches highlight how consumer surveillance technology, which shares some of the same capabilities and sometimes even the same code as spy software used by governments, has established itself with the everyday consumer. And it would appear no small number of people are willing to use this technology on their partners, spouses, or children.
In other words, surveillance starts at home.