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Thursday, 18 December 2008 08:54

Spy vs spy: iPhone spyware goes on sale

Uh-oh... Software that logs iPhone 3G SMS and voice call records to an online server has gone on sale. Is it a legitimate monitoring tool or a sneaky violation of privacy?

Although legitimate and illegitimate spyware is the bane of computer users and jealous partners on today's traditional desktop computers, smartphones have largely been free of the malware menace.

But things are rapidly changing, with the threat now apparent that some smartphones can be too smart for their users' good. After all, the combination of local processing power plus data connectivity can turn your electronic best friend into a handheld computing tattletale.

So, what is the newest spyware threat for the amazing Apple iPhone?

The Mobile Spy software and supporting service for the iPhone 3G costs $US99.97 per year.

For that, suspicious employers, parents and spouses get to see the full text of all SMS messages sent or received, plus a list of all calls including phone number, time and duration.

The spyware works by transferring the information to an Internet server as soon as it is connected, so it remains available even if the user erases the iPhone's internal log.

The records can then be viewed on the server via a web browser, or downloaded in CSV form for use in a local database or spreadsheet.

According to vendor Retina-X Studios, "Mobile Spy runs in total stealth mode and no mentions of the program are shown inside the iPhone."

This implies that the iPhone must be jailbreaked before Mobile Spy can be installed. The company skirts around this point: the web page describing its installation on an iPhone is restricted to its customers "Due to trade secrets".

Hmmm... detailed instructions are provided for the existing versions of Mobile Spy for Windows Mobile or Symbian handsets, so there's clearly some jiggery-pokey involved.

What does Retina-X have to say? Please read on.

Retina-X does insist that "Our software is not for use on a phone you do not own or have proper permission to monitor from the user or owner. You must always follow all applicable laws and regulations in your region."

Well, that's all right then, isn't it?

"The iPhone has quickly become the most dominant smartphone all over the world," said Retina-X CEO James Johns.

"Before now there was no method to monitor activities of children or employees on the iPhone. Being the first to develop this technology, we will continue expanding with new features for this tool."

While I can see there may be legitimate uses for this kind of product when one person is paying the bill for another's use, the fact that it is designed to be stealthy should set off alarm bells.

If Mobile Spy's purpose was to log the activity of a properly advised user, it would be appropriate for its presence to be clearly visible as a reminder that it's there.

The reference to "total stealth mode" tells me it is really meant for clandestine activities.

Spy vs spy? Welcome to the iPhone - and yes, no matter what Alfred E. Neuman says, you should be worried.

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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