Spy apps: Privacy protection or illegal surveillance?
15th Apr 2021
In a recent family law case, I came across an obscure app installed on a young person’s device called Super App Lock. The app is activated when anyone tries to unlock the phone without the correct password or pattern.
When an incorrect password is entered, the app takes a photo of the person holding the phone – with no flash and no sound to indicate that a photo has been taken.
In this instance, the spy app had been installed by a child who suspected that her mother was checking her phone to look for evidence of conversations between the child and her father.
Broad use of spy apps testing limits of the law
There is a growing number of similar spy apps on the market. Many are free to download, with the option of in-app purchases which give users additional features.
What is most alarming about this phenomenon is the blurred line of legality in these apps. This is because they have a wide range of uses, from anti-spyware devices that protect private information to illegal surveillance.
Most commonly used spy apps
While this is not an exhaustive list, the apps featured below give a broad indication of how spy apps are being used throughout the world.
These apps are designed primarily for personal security and privacy protection. They are often designed simply to take a photograph of anyone who fails to unlock the phone after one or more incorrect attempts. The intruder is unaware that they are being recorded. These apps may also send you a notification of the intruder’s attempt, along with the time stamp and GPS location of the device.
- Third Eye.
Designed to either hide or password-protect specific apps on your phone, vault apps can conceal your photo gallery, contact list or social media apps. Further functions may include taking a photo of the intruder who is trying to access your files and tracking the files that they were trying to access.
- Ultra Lock.
- Photo Vault.
Secret audio recording
On the surface, these apps appear to be administrative in nature or useful for dictation, but also include functions that allow users to record others discreetly with minimal notification.
- Smart Recorder.
- GOM Recorder.
- Voice Recorder.
Secret video recording
These apps are capable of commencing a recording with no visual or sound warning. Some can even record at scheduled times, while the screen is turned off, or turn a second device into a security camera.
- Background Video Recorder.
- Alfred Security Camera.
- Silent Secret Camera HD.
Secret phone call recording
Secret phone call recording apps can be installed on your phone, allowing you to record your conversations with a silent tap of a button, or they can be more insidious and be installed on another phone, allowing you to monitor another person’s activities remotely.
- Call Recorder Pro.
- TTSPY – marketed as having ‘all the features that you need to stalk or spy on someone without them ever finding out’. This app openly defies the principles of any privacy laws.
Legalities around recording a private conversation
While the installation of apps that monitor, record or track the use of someone’s phone and private conversations would be deemed illegal under Part 2 of the Surveillance Devices Act 2007 (NSW), the laws around surveillance differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Additionally, there are many exceptions that allow law enforcement agencies to engage in monitoring practices with appropriate warrants.
Many young people also seem to think that it is standard practice to record ‘important’ conversations without telling the other parties involved. Conversations with a lawyer or other professional might fall into such a category.
It may be good practice when conferencing with clients to ask that all devices be switched to silent and any recording capabilities be turned off before you commence.
This is an edited version of an article first published on Stacks Law.
Nick Burton is a lawyer in the Hornsby office of Stacks Law Firm and works primarily in the family law team. Nick also has experience in disputes and litigation, wills and estates, tree and fencing disputes between neighbours, debt recovery actions, and criminal law.
Nick is an ardent advocate for human rights and justice, aiming to achieve a fair outcome for his clients no matter what obstacles present themselves.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).