In order to get a first-hand look I decided to test one of these apps on myself, and transform my phone into a tracking device for a day. Once I discovered what the app was able to record and track I was given a chilling insight into how easy it would be for a jealous partner or vindictive ex to covertly observe their victim. Dutch filmmaker Anthony van der Meer used the app to track my every move for a day. Mr van der Meer, who is in Australia to speak at the International Association of Privacy Professionals ANZ summit, made a documentary using a tracking app to trace his stolen phone.
In less than a year it was viewed more than 6 million times.
I had no idea how easily my phone could be controlled remotely to see, hear and record what I said, everywhere I went and everything I did. I consented to having the app downloaded and I knew I could be monitored at any time, but I wasn't aware of exactly when I was being watched. And as I went about my usual morning routine, I soon forgot my phone was spying on me.
While the app icon was visible on my phone, there is a disguised version available with the innocuous title "system framework". Apart from the icon there were no other signs my phone was compromised.
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ABC News has chosen not to name the app used in the experiment, but it is available on the Android app store and is just one of many apps available. The front and rear cameras, microphone, text messages and phone call logs were able to be remotely accessed. Where I live, where I work and where I get my morning coffee was all visible. Consumer spyware apps are increasing in popularity, according to Deakin University surveillance expert Dr Adam Molnar. The consumer side of that, what civilians can actually purchase, is very similar," he said.
Misuse of this kind of consumer spyware is already emerging. Police in at least two states have issued internal warnings about the app I used in this experiment. Karen Bentley from The Women's Services Network, an organisation which trains domestic violence workers, says she has seen similar apps used to stalk victims.
Trust your instincts, maybe get a new phone and secure the passwords you've got," Ms Bentley warned. Lawyer Veronica Scott, from the International Association of Privacy Professionals ANZ, said while downloading consumer spyware apps may be legal, the way you use them might not be. Dr Molnar warned there were a range of other common apps which could reveal more information than we realise.
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