Spy(ware) Vs. Spy(ware): Indictments For One Creator, Law Enforcement Plaudits For The Other

from the it's-like-they-don't-even-hear-the-words-coming-out-of-their-mouths dept

Compare and contrast:

Product A

Alerts for terms used in Chat or Texting.
Access to videos as well as web, camera and cell phone images loaded on device.
Review & delete images.
Email, Print or Save results.
View Internet History Log.
Keystroke logging.

Product B

View sent/received text messages.
Access chatlogs.
Look at photos, videos, music stored on device.
View visited sites and bookmarks.
Alerts for suspicious words.

One of these products is handed out by law enforcement agencies. One just had its creator arrested after an FBI investigation.

Product A is ComputerCOP, a deeply-flawed set of tools that allows parents to spy on their children’s computer activities, provided they don’t mind getting hundreds of false positives returned during searches or having passwords stored as plaintext by the built-in keylogger.

Product B is StealthGenie, a piece of software aimed at giving the inherently suspicious (or routinely cuckolded) person surreptitious access to everything on their significant other’s phone. The full set of features included are astounding, including location info, email access, eavesdropping via the built-in mic and the perverse ability to lock or wipe someone else’s phone.

It’s not that the FBI was wrong to shut down the sale of this software, even if it does sound like the sort of thing the agency wishes it could deploy rather than terminate. It’s that the law enforcement-approved tool set overlaps so heavily with something aimed at tearing the digital roof off someone else’s life.

ComputerCOP — unlike the more (necessarily) targeted StealthGenie — doesn’t ultimately care who’s using the device it’s installed on. You may just want to track your kids’ internet activity, but anyone who uses it while it’s activated will have their web history — along with any keystrokes entered — automatically logged. If anything, ComputerCOP is a cheap, legal alternative to StealthGenie, even if it’s strictly limited to personal computers.

But one of these is being handed out by law enforcement agencies without any oversight (and with loads of misinformation). The other was the subject of a federal investigation. There’s a certain amount of disconnection here, similar to law enforcement’s use of encryption to protect themselves from criminals but wanting to deny the public the same option.

Just replace “StealthGenie” with “ComputerCOP” in these statements from the FBI’s press release and see if it ultimately makes any difference. [h/t to Techdirt reader Will Klein]

“Selling spyware is not just reprehensible, it’s a crime,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell. “Apps like StealthGenie are expressly designed for use by stalkers and domestic abusers who want to know every detail of a victim’s personal life — all without the victim’s knowledge.”

“StealthGenie has little use beyond invading a victim’s privacy” said U.S. Attorney Boente. “Advertising and selling spyware technology is a criminal offense, and such conduct will be aggressively pursued by this office and our law enforcement partners.”

“This application allegedly equips potential stalkers and criminals with a means to invade an individual’s confidential communications,” said FBI Assistant Director in Charge McCabe. “They do this not by breaking into their homes or offices, but by physically installing spyware on unwitting victims’ phones and illegally tracking an individual’s every move. As technology continues to evolve, the FBI will investigate and bring to justice those who use illegal means to monitor and track individuals without their knowledge.”

Spyware is spyware, whether it’s sporting a uniform and a badge or an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.

Filed Under: , , , , , , , ,
Companies: computercop, stealthgenie

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Comments on “Spy(ware) Vs. Spy(ware): Indictments For One Creator, Law Enforcement Plaudits For The Other”

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John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You are. I’m not sure about what the details of the charges against StealthGenie specifically are, but in the past the difference between legal and illegal sales of spyware has boiled down to how it’s marketed. If you’re selling it as sypware (that is, something you install on phones you don’t own or control to monitor someone else without their knowledge or permission), then you can expect to be arrested. If you’re selling the same spyware as a means to monitor the use of phones you own or control (you’re an employer, or a parent, for instance), then you’re legally safe.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Only a complete idiot would encourage customers to use his product in an illegal fashion.

That’s why head shops sell things like “incense” and “bath salts” — hoping that most customers can deduce for themselves what these things are really intended for. Otherwise, they’d be raided and shut down in a heartbeat.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re: Re:

I believe expectation of privacy comes into play here. If the phone or computer, belong to your work place you don’t have an expectation of privacy in using them. This is true even if you use them at your home. Now, if your workplace gave you a laptop which is now yours to do with as you wish, there is an expectation of privacy. You can install a keylogger on your home computers which are used by your kids. Because they are minors, the law doesn’t require you to inform them about such monitoring. Once a child turns 18 though they have an expectation of privacy when using that computer and any surreptitious monitoring becomes illegal (I think wiretapping applies in this case). The same is true if you own the computer and your spouse also uses it.
The upshot here is that if StealthGenie had marketed their spyware as a way to protect children then they would not have their current legal problems.

Bengie says:

Re: Re:

You can install keylogging software on your computer so long as NO other adult ever uses your computer. If you log someone else’s credentials, you’re commit a federal crime.

I remember a story of a wife in the USA who got placed under house arrest for accessing her husbands email account. All she did was sit down at the family computer and start reading his emails since he left his account logged in. She almost got prison time, but the husband convinced the court to reduce the charges.

Don’t mess with other people’s private data.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

No, your LMGTFY link is about a husband being charged for reading his wife’s email and as I said below, the charges in that case (of Leon Walker) were dismissed.

It’s quite possible Bengie was thinking of that case, but he mentioned a wife being arrested for the act and her almost getting prison and a reduction, rather than dismissal, of the charges on the husband’s request.

A request for a case number in this scenario is valid since googling Bengie’s version doesn’t seem to come up with anything (and this would be a widely reported story if it had indeed happened). It takes a special kind of idiot prosecutor to charge a spouse with that. Even the case of Leon Walker was something I’d expect to see on Judge Judy. It’s a civil matter, not a criminal one.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Every single ‘factoid’ in your statement(s) are absolute bullshit.

If you give someone access to your computer you can logg (and it’s done automatically on most computers anyway) EVERY SINGLE THING they do because YOU OWN the computer, you have the right to see and understand what they are doing.

Where the illegality comes in is if you then use there passwords you have seen to access any of their accounts intentionally and without authorisation.

As for the wife who accessed her husbands emails – case citations or you are instead remembering FUD that is urban mythology. Again unless the wife was intentionally and without lawful authority accessing her husbands account then she is perfectly fine to see what has been written whilst they are still legally married and all computer equipment is therefore jointly owned and authorised.

anyone who believes your tripe you have written is now dumber for the experience

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“You can install keylogging software on your computer so long as NO other adult ever uses your computer. If you log someone else’s credentials, you’re commit a federal crime.”

I’m not an attorney, this is not legal advice, however: there are certain classes of professionals who are required to keep certain communications confidential, e.g. lawyers and doctors. If you’re one of those and if you’re engaged in protected communication, isn’t it your (legal) obligation to ensure that you are maintaining that confidentiality, to the best of your ability? (For example, an attorney probably shouldn’t talk to a client while in a crowded elevator and a doctor shouldn’t print out patient email on a publicly-accessible printer.)

I’ll leave it to those qualified to address the legal points to ascertain whether I’m on track or have gone off the rails here, but it certainly seems to me that one’s ethical obligation is to avoid disclosure of these kinds of communications. Lawyers — is it also one’s legal obligation?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The idea of private “confidentiality” imposed by a code of professional ethics is a myth. We live in a snitch society that legally mandates that various professionals MUST immediately report to legal authorities anything and everything told to them in confidence, if suspicions of things like child abuse (however that’s defined) arise out of those supposedly-private conversations. Priests are the only ones exempt from snitch rules, but how much longer that exemption lasts is anyone’s guess.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“…various professionals MUST immediately report to legal authorities anything and everything told to them in confidence, if suspicions of things like child abuse…”

No, not anything and everything. They must report when child abuse is happening or there is an imminent danger that the person will hurt someone. They don’t have to fully and completely report everything that was said.

“Priests are the only ones exempt from snitch rules”

In 27 states (as of 2013), priests are also mandatory reporters. In 18 states, everyone is a mandatory reporter. (Source: https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/clergymandated.pdf)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The only story of this type I can find is one of a husband who accessed his wife’s email to find out she was having an affair. He was charged with misuse of a computer and the fact that he was tech savvy made the prosecutor (who sounds like a luddite) claim that he’s a hacker and that his access to her email was nefarious. It was already a stretch in my opinion to charge him with that, but the charges were dropped when it was revealed that the wife had accessed the text messages on his phone. And if that’s all it takes to negate the charges, then the charges were bullshit.

PRMan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

And that really is the big difference. One is marketed toward putting it on your childrens’ phones (presumably phones that you own). And presumably you let them know that it is on there.

The other is aimed at secretly putting it on another adult’s phone against their will. A phone that, if it’s not your spouse, you may not have any ownership over whatsoever.

This is a big difference.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Speaking of spyware...

…this is a very interesting read about the Windows 10 preview:


The statements made in that article do seem to match up with the “Privacy Policy” here:


However I haven’t made an exhaustive check, so perhaps I overlooked something.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Speaking of spyware...

This is pure speculation, but it is possible that these terms are for the preview only and are not the terms that will be in place when the software actually gets released. This would actually make sense, as the primary purpose of the preview is beta testing, and you need solid metrics in that effort.

If these terms persist to the final product, however, then it guarantees that I’ll never touch Windows 10.

There is an easy way to stop this, regardless of the terms of the contract, though. Block all traffic to and from Microsoft servers.

Anonymous Coward says:

policing the police

Authorities need to do a better job locking down their malware so it doesn’t get “into the wild” and victimize non-targeted computers. Like Stuxnet and its derivatives, which went on to infect industrial computers worldwide.

And it’s not just computer code. “Operation Fast and Furious” was another example of how the people we trust with safeguarding our liberty and keeping us safe (i.e., ‘the government’) often turn out to be the ones who end up harming us the most.

It’s a pervasive problem that the “tools of enforcement” – whatever they might be – are in the hands of a class of people who all too often are careless and arrogant with the powers that the citizenry naively trusts them with.

bshock says:

a distinction without a difference

Using spyware is using spyware. Perjury is perjury. Theft is theft. Murder is murder.

The only difference between when the “bad guys” and the “good guys” do these things is that the “good guys” have a larger, better-armed organization behind them, and tend to get away with their criminal actions almost every time. Just as the victors write history, so too do the most powerful criminals define justice.

Anonymous Coward says:

Spyware being legal or illegal, all depends on who’s deploying the spyware or who the spyware is being sold to.

If those in power are deploying spyware, then it perfectly legal. If a company like FinFisher is selling spyware to governments in power, then that’s perfectly legal too.

The legal explanation doesn’t get any more clean-cut than that.

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