Did you know people can monitor you through your phone? The FTC’s settlement with Retina-X Studios, LLC marks the agency’s first case against “stalking apps” or “stalkerware” — spyware that secretly monitors another person’s smartphone.

Retina-X developed and sold MobileSpy, PhoneSheriff and TeenShield. These apps shared detailed information about your smartphone activities — like call history, text messages, photos, GPS locations, and browser history — without your knowledge. They were marketed for monitoring children and employees, but in the wrong hands, they let abusers track people’s physical movements and online activities.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Retina-X did not make sure purchasers were using the apps for legitimate purposes. In fact, to install the apps, purchasers often had to weaken the security protections on your smartphone (sometimes called jailbreaking or rooting). Plus, once a purchaser installed the app on your phone, they could remove the icon, so you wouldn’t know they were monitoring you. Even for legitimate users, the company failed to keep data — including children’s information — confidential and safe.

The FTC settlement requires Retina-X to make sure their monitoring apps are used only for legitimate purposes. In addition, Retina-X must destroy all data already collected from their monitoring services. And going forward, they must set up a comprehensive information security program.

If you think someone might have installed a stalking app on your smartphone, here are steps to consider:

• Check if your smartphone has been rooted or jailbroken. This allows full control over your phone by weakening its security protections. “Root checker” apps identify if your smartphone has been rooted or jailbroken.

• Get help. Law enforcement and domestic violence advocates can help you identify tech misuse and create a safety plan. Law enforcement can determine if spyware is on your phone. Domestic violence advocates can advise you on preserving evidence of abuse before you make changes to your phone. If possible, contact them from a different device than the one that might have the stalking app.

• Get a new smartphone or reset your phone. It might be safest to get a new smartphone with an account that the abuser doesn’t have access to. If you keep your smartphone, consider removing the stalking app by factory resetting your smartphone and reinstalling the manufacturer’s operating system. Do not re-install programs or content from the old phone or your cloud, as this could re-install the spyware.

For more, read the FTC’s technology tips and mobile spyware articles. For help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Those in immediate danger should call 911.

Lisa Schifferle is an attorney for the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Consumer and Business Education.

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