Hacked, leaked, exposed: Why you should never use stalkerware apps

Last week, an unknown hacker broke into the servers of the U.S.-based stalkerware maker pcTattletale. The hacker then stole and leaked the company’s internal data. They also defaced pcTattletale’s official website with the goal of embarrassing the company. 

“This took a total of 15 minutes from reading the techcrunch article,” the hackers wrote in the defacement, referring to a recent TechCrunch article where we reported that pcTattletale was used to monitor several front desk check-in computers at Wyndham hotels across the United States.

As a result of this hack, leak and shame operation, pcTattletale founder Bryan Fleming said he was shutting down his company.

Consumer spyware apps like pcTattletale are commonly referred to as stalkerware because jealous spouses and partners use them to surreptitiously monitor and surveil their loved ones. These companies often explicitly market their products as solutions to catch cheating partners by encouraging illegal and unethical behavior. And there have been multiple court cases, journalistic investigations, and surveys of domestic abuse shelters that show that online stalking and monitoring can lead to cases of real-world harm and violence. 

And that’s why hackers have repeatedly targeted some of these companies.

According to TechCrunch’s tally, with this latest hack, pcTattletale has become the 20th stalkerware company since 2017 that is known to have been hacked or leaked customer and victims’ data online. That’s not a typo: Twenty stalkerware companies have either been hacked or had a significant data exposure in recent years. And three stalkerware companies were hacked multiple times. 

Eva Galerpin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a leading researcher and activist who has investigated and fought stalkerware for years, said the stalkerware industry is a “soft target.” “The people who run these companies are perhaps not the most scrupulous or really concerned about the quality of their product,” Galperin told TechCrunch.

Given the history of stalkerware compromises, that may be an understatement. And because of the lack of care for protecting their own customers — and consequently the personal data of tens of thousands of unwitting victims — using these apps is doubly irresponsible. The stalkerware customers may be breaking the law, abusing their partners by illegally spying on them, and, on top of that, putting everyone’s data in danger. 

A history of stalkerware hacks

The flurry of stalkerware breaches began in 2017 when a group of hackers breached the U.S.-based Retina-X and the Thailand-based FlexiSpy back to back. Those two hacks revealed that the companies had a total number of 130,000 customers all over the world.

At the time, the hackers who — proudly — claimed responsibility for the compromises explicitly said their motivations were to expose and hopefully help destroy an industry that they consider toxic and unethical.

“I’m going to burn them to the ground, and leave absolutely nowhere for any of them to hide,” one of the hackers involved then told Motherboard. 

Referring to FlexiSpy, the hacker added: “I hope they’ll fall apart and fail as a company, and have some time to reflect on what they did. However, I fear they might try and give birth to themselves again in a new form. But if they do, I’ll be there.”

Despite the hack, and years of negative public attention, FlexiSpy is still active today. The same cannot be said about Retina-X.

The hacker who broke into Retina-X wiped its servers with the goal of hampering its operations. The company bounced back — and then it got hacked again a year later. A couple of weeks after the second breach, Retina-X announced that it was shutting down. 

Just days after the second Retina-X breach, hackers hit Mobistealth and Spy Master Pro, stealing gigabytes of customer and business records, as well as victims’ intercepted messages and precise GPS locations. Another stalkerware vendor, the India-based SpyHuman, encountered the same fate a few months later, with hackers stealing text messages and call metadata, which contained logs of who called who and when. 

Weeks later, there was the first case of accidental data exposure, rather than a hack. SpyFone left an Amazon-hosted S3 storage bucket unprotected online, which meant anyone could see and download text messages, photos, audio recordings, contacts, location, scrambled passwords and login information, Facebook messages and more. All that data was stolen from victims, most of whom did not know they were being spied on, let alone know their most sensitive personal data was also on the internet for all to see. 

Other stalkerware companies that over the years have irresponsibly left customer and victims’ data online are FamilyOrbit, which left 281 gigabytes of personal data online protected only by an easy-to-find password; mSpy, which leaked over 2 million customer records; Xnore, which let any of its customers see the personal data of other customers’ targets, which included chat messages, GPS coordinates, emails, photos and more; Mobiispy, which left 25,000 audio recordings and 95,000 images on a server accessible to anyone; KidsGuard, which had a misconfigured server that leaked victims’ content; pcTattletale, which prior to its hack also exposed screenshots of victims’ devices uploaded in real-time to a website that anyone could access; and Xnspy, whose developers left credentials and private keys left in the apps’ code, allowing anyone to access victims’ data.

As far as other stalkerware companies that actually got hacked, there was Copy9, which saw a hacker steal the data of all its surveillance targets, including text messages and WhatsApp messages, call recordings, photos, contacts, and brows history; LetMeSpy, which shut down after hackers breached and wiped its servers; the Brazil-based WebDetetive, which also got its servers wiped, and then hacked again; OwnSpy, which provides much of the backend software for WebDetetive, also got hacked; Spyhide, which had a vulnerability in its code that allowed a hacker to access the back-end databases and years of stolen around 60,000 victims’ data; and Oospy, which was a rebrand of Spyhide, shut down for a second time.

Finally there is TheTruthSpy, a network of stalkerware apps, which holds the dubious record of having been hacked or having leaked data on at least three separate occasions. 

Hacked, but unrepented

Of these 20 stalkerware companies, eight have shut down, according to TechCrunch’s tally. 

In a first and so far unique case, the Federal Trade Commission banned SpyFone and its chief executive, Scott Zuckerman, from operating in the surveillance industry following an earlier security lapse that exposed victims’ data. Another stalkerware operation linked to Zuckerman, called SpyTrac, subsequently shut down following a TechCrunch investigation. 

PhoneSpector and Highster, another two companies that are not known to have been hacked, also shut down after New York’s attorney general accused the companies of explicitly encouraging customers to use their software for illegal surveillance. 

But a company closing doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. As with Spyhide and SpyFone, some of the same owners and developers behind a shuttered stalkerware maker simply rebranded. 

“I do think that these hacks do things. They do accomplish things, they do put a dent in it,” Galperin said. “But if you think that if you hack a stalkerware company, that they will simply shake their fists, curse your name, disappear in a puff of blue smoke and never be seen again, that has most definitely not been the case.”

“What happens most often, when you actually manage to kill a stalkerware company, is that the stalkerware company comes up like mushrooms after the rain,” Galperin added. 

There is some good news. In a report last year, security firm Malwarebytes said that the use of stalkerware is declining, according to its own data of customers infected with this type of software. Also, Galperin reports seeing an increase in negative reviews of these apps, with customers or prospective customers complaining they don’t work as intended.

But, Galperin said that it’s possible that security firms aren’t as good at detecting stalkerware as they used to be, or stalkers have moved from software-based surveillance to physical surveillance enabled by AirTags and other Bluetooth-enabled trackers.

“Stalkerware does not exist in a vacuum. Stalkerware is part of a whole world of tech enabled abuse,” Galperin said.

Say no to stalkerware

Using spyware to monitor your loved ones is not only unethical, it’s also illegal in most jurisdictions, as it’s considered unlawful surveillance. 

That is already a significant reason not to use stalkerware. Then there is the issue that stalkerware makers have proven time and time again that they cannot keep data secure — neither data belonging to the customers nor their victims or targets.

Apart from spying on romantic partners and spouses, some people use stalkerware apps to monitor their children. While this type of use, at least in the United States, is legal, it doesn’t mean using stalkerware to snoop on your kids’ phone isn’t creepy and unethical. 

Even if it’s lawful, Galperin thinks parents should not spy on their children without telling them, and without their consent. 

If parents do inform their children and get their go-ahead, parents should stay away from insecure and untrustworthy stalkerware apps, and use parental tracking tools built into Apple phones and tablets and Android devices that are safer and operate overtly. 

If you or someone you know needs help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) provides 24/7 free, confidential support to victims of domestic abuse and violence. If you are in an emergency situation, call 911. The Coalition Against Stalkerware has resources if you think your phone has been compromised by spyware.

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