FTC bans stalkerware app SpyFone, orders deletion of illegally collected data

The Federal Trade Commission says the app secretly harvested and shared data on people's physical movements, phone use and online activities.

Bree Fowler Senior Writer
Bree Fowler writes about cybersecurity and digital privacy. Before joining CNET she reported for The Associated Press and Consumer Reports. A Michigan native, she's a long-suffering Detroit sports fan, world traveler, two star marathoner and champion baker of over-the-top birthday cakes and all-things sourdough.
Expertise Cybersecurity, Digital Privacy, IoT, Consumer Tech, Running and Fitness Tech, Smartphones, Wearables
Bree Fowler
2 min read
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The US Federal Trade Commission banned a stalkerware app company and its top executive from the surveillance business after its secretly installed software was found to have harvested data on peoples' phone use and physical movements. The agency also indicated it would continue to crack down on the industry, whose products are often used by stalkers and domestic abusers.

SpyFone, led by CEO Scott Zuckerman, sold real-time access to secret surveillance, allowing abusers to track potential victims without their knowledge, the  FTC  said Wednesday. The company's lax security practices also put people being tracked at risk by opening up their devices to attacks from cybercriminals, the agency added. SpyFone was also ordered to destroy all illegally collected data and notify affected device owners the app had been secretly installed.

"SpyFone is a brazen brand name for a surveillance business that helped stalkers steal private information," Samuel Levine, acting director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement.

The case serves as an important reminder of the threat that surveillance-based businesses pose to consumer safety and security, Levine said. The FTC, he said, will be "aggressive about seeking surveillance bans when companies and their executives egregiously invade our privacy."

Read more: Stalkerware: What to do if you're the target

The installation of Spyfone's apps on Android phones required users to bypass many of the phone's restrictions. To use some functions, such as monitoring email, purchasers had to "root" phones, which could void the devices' warranties and create security risks, the FTC said.

The FTC charged that the surveillance data collected by the apps made it easy for stalkers and abusers to monitor their potential targets and steal sensitive information about their physical movements, phone use and online activities. For example, some of the products allowed a purchaser to see the device's live location and view the device user's emails and video chats. 

In the consent decree issued by the FTC, SpyFone, which now does business under the name Support King LLC, didn't admit or deny any of the allegations made in the FTC's complaint. On its website, Support King touts itself as a remote tech-support company for mobile devices.

Representatives of Support King, which is based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, didn't immediately return an email seeking comment.