MSpy Casts a Watchful Eye on Mobile Devices, Plans Move to New York

12/9/13Follow @jpruth

Trust can be a fickle thing, especially when it comes to mobile communication.

These personal gadgets let people capture and share information that, in the wrong hands, might do harm. They can also expose bad behavior in the making. The co-founders of mSpy say that’s what prompted them to build technology for keeping tabs on mobile devices.

The mSpy software reveals much of what smartphones are used for: GPS locations, text messages, e-mails, Facebook updates, and more can be seen by a person using mSpy to monitor someone else’s phone. The software can even let someone remotely switch on a phone to eavesdrop on its surroundings.

Those are some scary-sounding, Big Brother-style invasion of privacy features. CEO Andrei Shimanovich, however, wants you to look past the initial shock and see some legitimate uses for mSpy’s software.

“We understand that given today’s privacy-oriented climate, this is a rather controversial product,” he said via e-mail. “But our answer to privacy advocates is this: with privacy comes responsibility.”

He will soon have plenty more opportunities to explain that idea—mSpy, which was founded in the UK in 2011, plans to move to New York in February.

The company, Shimanovich said, is bootstrapped and thus far has no need for investors. Its monitoring service is marketed to employers, to see what workers say on company issued-smartphones, and concerned family members.

Parents and elder siblings can use it, Shimanovich said, to know who younger kids are talking to. You can also obviously see how spouses who suspect infidelity would want to use this app.

The same goes for bosses worried about sensitive corporate information getting exposed—even unintentionally. Smartphones can get lost or left in taxicabs, opening the door for business secrets to get out. If someone does not behave responsibly, Shimanovich said, the software offers control to a person in charge.

Even with world attention to electronic government spying at a high after recent revelations about the NSA’s digital surveillance programs, Shimanovich is undeterred about putting such power in the public’s hands.

“The NSAs and the FBIs of the world aren’t the only ones spying on us,” Shimanovich said. “Sometimes it’s your boss, or your spouse, or your parent. It’s already happening; the question is how are customers going to deal with it?”

But while Shimanovich said mSpy encourages customers to be up-front about monitoring phones, he admits there are no formal safeguards to prevent potential abuse. A disclaimer on the mSpy website says the technology is only for devices the person owns or has consent to monitor. The notice says users are required to inform others their phones are being watched.

Deeper in the legal section of the website (which surely will be read by customers), mSpy says it is a violation of the law in most cases to put monitoring technology on devices without proper assent. That includes failure to give such notice, obtain consent, or own the devices in question.

So in the end, mSpy leaves it up to the user to behave aboveboard—the company says it will comply with legal authorities if people misuse the product. The software, once installed, does not alert a person that his or her device is being monitored.

Shimanovich said the co-founders of mSpy—natives of Belarus—formed the company in Britain because most of them lived there or in Eastern Europe. He comes from the financial services sector and his partners worked in mobile app development.

They created mSpy, he said, after facing problems with sensitive information getting out of corporate hands. “The company my friends worked for was suffering massive losses, and layoffs, because very confidential corporate data had been leaked,” Shimanovich said.

Meanwhile, he wanted to keep his somewhat unruly teenage sister in line. Not knowing who she was with or her whereabouts also became a concern. “She would try to assert her independence by regularly missing her classes,” he said. The answer to their shared troubles, he believes, is mSpy.

So bosses and parents who feel the need to snoop through such information, mSpy awaits. Just be forewarned, having the power to creep through other people’s mobile communications does not necessarily mean having a legal right to do so.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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