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Mobile spyware raises ethical, legal questions

Michael Kan | Dec. 1, 2011
In 2003, Atir Raihan began work on a product that has gone on to gain infamy in the world's security industry.

In 2003, Atir Raihan began work on a product that has gone on to gain infamy in the world's security industry. His idea: to build a spyware program for mobile phones that would allow people to catch a cheating spouse.

"I remember eight years ago, having a drink with friends and telling them about my personal situation. It involved infidelity with an old girlfriend," Raihan recalled recently. Wouldn't it be good, he thought, if there were a technology that could help him get to the bottom of it?

Seeing a potential business opportunity, as well as a solution to his relationship dilemma, Raihan and his Thailand-based company, Flexispy, developed a product of the same name that can secretly track calls and texts made to and from a mobile phone.

Flexispy can't be installed remotely, so the user has to get hold of the phone and download the software to the device. Once it's there, the program logs all texts and calls on the device. It can also allow a remote party to listen in on a conversation, and to use the GPS to track a person's location.

Since its release in 2004, similar products have cropped up from companies such as Mobile Spy, which is marketed as a way to spy on children and employees, and MobiStealth, aimed at parents, employees and law enforcement agents.

While the products are used worldwide, they seem to have been doing particularly well in China. About 10,000 users there are being "infected" with Flexispy each month, estimated Zou Shihong, vice president with mobile security firm NetQin.

Within a small monthly sample of the company's Chinese clients, 1,000 users were found to have Flexispy installed on their phones, Zou said. In contrast, the company found about 300 cases in a sample of clients in the U.S., according to a NetQin chief scientist.

Products like Flexispy raise obvious ethical and legal questions. While simply buying such software is not illegal in most countries, how it is used can put users on the wrong side of the law. Wire-tapping is illegal in most countries without a court order, for example. Tampering with a person's phone might also lead to trouble.

"These products violate privacy," said Zhang Qiyi, a lawyer in China, where the government has tried to ban Flexispy with mixed success.

Once the program is installed, data from the handset is secretly routed to a server operated by Flexispy. The user can log into the server to read messages and check call logs. The software can also activate the phone's microphone, so it can be used as a bugging device to listen in on nearby conversations.


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