As the world still reels over reports of U.S. government surveillance of privately owned smartphones, a spyware industry is growing that's focused on helping employers monitor the ways smartphones and tablets are used by their workers. Parents are also interested in the service to track their children's smartphone use.
With these monitoring tools, the word "spy" doesn't hold the same negative connotations that it carries for the millions of people concerned with government surveillance of phone and Internet communications that were first disclosed last June by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
At least 10 companies are selling smartphone and tablet tracking and monitoring software. This week, one of them, called mSpy, announced it has begun selling its software preloaded on four popular smartphones, including the iPhone 5S.
With mSpy's software, customers can capture a wide range of mobile data from the targeted smartphones, including voice calls, emails, texts, keystrokes, WhatsApp and Skype chats, GPS location and more. Targeted smartphones can also be locked remotely.
MSpy, first launched in 2011 with three employees. Today it has 1.2 million customers, 30 employees at its base in London, and another 10 being hired in New York City.
Founder Andrei Shimanovich originally intended the software for parents to provide more control over the ways their children use smartphones, block access to certain websites and apps or to restrict incoming calls. The software can also provide remote call recording for Android and iOS devices.
More recently, mSpy's software has become a way for small business owners to monitor their company-owned devices, Shimanovich said. The software allows employers to protect data on the smartphones with cloud backup. The mSpy software runs on the smartphone and aggregates the device's daily activity to a cloud-based, password-protected control panel where employers, or parents, can perform remote commands from either a desktop, smartphone or other device with a browser.
While employers can monitor workers carrying the mSpy-capable smartphones, the company notes on its Web site that employers are legally obligated to inform their workers that mSpy is installed on their devices at the time they are issued. However, some functions for managing worker smartphones used in high-end mobile device management software (MDM) purchased by large corporations, such as the remote ability to turn off a smartphone's camera, are not possible with mSpy, the company said.
In addition to backing up mobile device data, businesses are interested in mSpy "for the same reasons that some companies monitor their workers' desktop activity or block certain websites -- to ensure productivity and to prevent any kind of questionable behavior during work hours," Shimanovich said.
"People are very interested in monitoring these days, especially after the NSA and Snowden news, and we think that will continue," he added via email. "As people and businesses become more comfortable with how mSpy works and the benefits it offers, they will see opportunities for it in their everyday lives."
About half of mSpy's customers are in the U.S., with most based in Florida, Texas and California, mSpy said. The company would only say that 10% of all customers are business users that want to ensure the safety of business data, while 40% are parents. Nearly three-fourths are men, and the company recently said in a press release that "individuals wishing to keep tabs on their significant others may find [tracking] increasingly appealing as well."
MSpy sells its software bundled with the iPhone 5S, Nexus 5, HTC One and Galaxy S4. The phones are unlocked and start at $649 for the Nexus 5, which includes a year of mSpy premium software services for $200. Other models are planned, mSpy said.
Large companies in recent years have invested millions of dollars into software and systems to track and monitor workers in the field, ranging from plumbers making house calls to managers in securities firms carrying confidential data on clients. In some cases, MDM and related software is used to set up wireless geo-fences around a corporate campus so that a smartphone or tablet can't access corporate records or apps beyond a certain distance.
Samsung upgraded its Knox software and Blackberry is launching a new version of its Enterprise Server software, both of which are used for device and application management. Both companies' tools are considered more complex and far-reaching than monitoring software designed for consumers and small businesses. Knox costs a business $3.60 per month per user, while BES 12 will be free to existing users and will cost from $19 to $60 per user per year for new customers.
The average cost for such software is $5 per user per month, according to Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.
Shimanovich said mSpy competes against more than 10 competitors "all with their pros and cons." Competitors include PhoneSheriff, Mobile Spy, My Mobile Watchdog, MobiStealth, StealthGenie, SpyPhone Basic Internet, SpyBubble, E-Blaster Mobile and Flexispy.
Shimanovich said it's not necessarily ironic that mSpy has so many buyers at the same time that so many people are outraged over the surveillance revealed in the Snowden case. "I think people are now more aware that their data and privacy are not as secure as they may have thought," he said.
"Knowing that the government has been spying has naturally caused people to want to take back control," he added. "Interest and awareness of spying is high as a result of Snowden, but now people want to use that same concept to protect or prevent, rather than to exploit."
This article, Snowden surveillance revelations raise interest in smartphone spyware for business, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected].
Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.