Forget the NSA. That Smartphone Snooper May Be Your Spouse

Photographer: Ron Koeberer/Getty Images

It's not just the National Security Agency spying on smartphones. Many ordinary people are also using sophisticated software to eavesdrop on the wireless communications of their lovers, children and business rivals.

According to a new study that examined the data traffic of mobile devices operating on the Middle Eastern network of a European carrier, hundreds of people had some form of surveillance software installed on their phones.

These aren't malicious apps that the users had been tricked into downloading. They're pieces of commercially available spyware that people with physical access to the devices have installed to secretly log each text message, phone call and contact, and in some cases, eavesdrop on calls in real time.

Most of the installations were probably done by spouses and private investigators, according to Michael Shaulov, CEO of Lacoon Mobile Security, the San Francisco-based startup that did the study. Although the number of phones with spyware was relatively small -- just over 600 -- Shaulov expects that figure to grow amid increasing awareness of surveillance technology, be it at the consumer or national level. Lacoon, which does research and development in Israel, sells security software that detects malicious mobile applications and attacks on corporate networks.

The findings offer a rare insight into consumers' use of spying techniques that traditionally have been limited to the realm of government spy agencies. Bloomberg News last year examined the use of surveillance software by repressive regimes in a series of stories called "Wired for Repression." Corporate espionage is a growing motivation for installing spyware.

Lacoon, founded in 2011 by former members of the Israel Defense Forces and backed by prominent Israeli security entrepreneur Shlomo Kramer, analyzed the mobile traffic with permission from the carrier, which Shaulov wouldn't identify. Lacoon looked at the wireless traffic to determine how many devices were communicating with servers known to be associated with spyware companies.

Nearly half of those that did were linked to SpyToMobile, which markets its product to consumers. While it's generally not illegal to spy on phones you own, things get murky when the spying involves phones you routinely have access to, like a partner's.

The company's terms of service states that users need to own the phones the software is being installed on, or the users need to have written authorization from the target. SpyToMobile said via e-mail that all users must agree to its terms of service and that it has suspended accounts found to have used the app without the device owners' permission.

For its part, SpyToMobile is actually using the NSA spy scandal in its sales pitch, although the company said it does not share data with the NSA. At least, not knowingly.

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