Police use “commercial spyware” to track down crooks, suspicious lovers can use it to track wandering partners, and parents can use it to keep an eye on their children.
But, the technology is now being used for more sinister purposes, surveillance experts warn.
“Commercial spyware is being used by law enforcement and security intelligence, in countries around the world. The consumer side of that, what civilians can actually purchase, is very similar,” Deakin University’s Dr Adam Molnar told the ABC.
This very technology was turned on the criminals by vigilante Dutch filmmaker Anthony van der Meer last year when he made a documentary using a tracking app to trace his stolen phone. In less than a year, it was viewed more than six million times.
Using a spyware app, the young tech wizard could track the thief’s location and he could even access the phone’s camera and microphone to spy on him.
Fascinating though the Dutchman’s film is, the same technology is now being used by predatory partners, according to Karen Bentley from The Women’s Services Network, an anti-organisation domestic violence.
She told the ABC she has seen similar apps used to stalk victims.
“I’ve been working with a woman whose phones were given to her and her children by her ex-husband,” Ms Bentley said.
“He installed an app on all three phones which tracks exactly where they were and also had a notification … if they went beyond a certain perimeter, and she had no idea.
“It’s easy for abusers to make people think they are going crazy. Trust your instincts, maybe get a new phone and secure the passwords you’ve got.”
There are dozens of similar apps available for free on Google Play Store and Apple App Store. And, while downloading consumer spyware apps may be legal, there are many uses for them which might break the law, says Veronica Scott, a lawyer for International Association of Privacy Professionals ANZ.
Mr van der Meer was inspired to make the Youtube sensation last year when his iPhone disappeared while he was lunching in Amsterdam.
Although he reported it stolen, the crook had already disposed of the SIM card and disconnected the device from the internet.
“By the time I realised my phone was gone and I had called the police, it was already too late,” he said in the film,” he said.
“On ‘find my iPhone’ (a phone-tracking app), I was able to see the last few metres the thief had walked before the phone went offline.
“Losing such an expensive phone wasn’t even my biggest concern. But the idea of a stranger having access to all my photos, videos, contacts, emails, and messages.”
Curious who steals these phones and where they eventually end up, Mr van der Meer decided to try and get his phone robbed again — but this time around the film student pre-loaded the device with spyware so he could keep tabs on the thief and get to know him up close and personal.
After planting the phone in a bag and waiting more than five days for the unsuspecting Dutch bandit to pick it up, Mr van der Meer began to trace his every step.
The film student found rather than hating him, he grew to like the person who was in possession of his phone. He discovered a lot about him, including he was probably homeless because he hung around alleyways and coffee shops in Amsterdam during the day.