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."