This story is part of When Spies Come Home, a Motherboard series about powerful surveillance software ordinary people use to spy on their loved ones.
This post and podcast discusses domestic violence and sexual assault.
Jessica's seven-year-old daughter walked up to her in the kitchen one morning and asked her a question. "Mommy, how come everything that happens at our house, I get to daddy's house and he already knows it happened?" For years, Jessica's ex-husband had been surveilling her smartphone, reading every text message and email she sent, listening to her calls, tracking her on GPS. The surveillance had gotten so blatant that even their kid had started to notice. "It was such a sad moment for me because it was obvious to her that her dad was that all knowing and powerful about what goes on inside this house," Jessica (we are protecting her identity for this story and podcast) told me. "I said, 'Do you think you tell him things and you forget you tell him and he brings it up again?' and she said, 'No it's not like that at all. He just already knows.'"
The new episode of pluspluspodcast dives into the horrifying world of smartphone spyware, a bustling industry made up of hundreds of companies that are mostly headquartered overseas. To show the power of these programs, Motherboard reporter Joseph Cox bought off-the-shelf spyware from a Polish company for $170 and surveilled himself for a week. While I was sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn, I was able to remotely turn on Joseph's microphone, intercept his calls, and track him as he walked around Berlin.
"We're intercepting the call, yeah?" I asked him for the show.
"Yeah, this call is being recorded by my malware, which will then beam off to a server and you'll be able to login and listen to the contents whenever you want," Joseph said.
pluspluspodcast is available on iTunes and every podcast app.
While this was an experiment and reporting opportunity for us, Jessica lived under this state of surveillance for years. When she met with the police, friends, or went on a date, she would put her phone in a faraday bag that blocks the cellular signal, wrap the phone in tinfoil, or remove the battery.
"I would find myself having conversations with my cell phone in the room that I shouldn't have had with my cell phone in the room," she said. "Because you just get lazy, you get tired of being that vigilant and frankly feeling a little paranoid. But at one point I was like, 'I don't care if he listens to every conversation I ever have.'"
Jessica's story is not unique, according to Cindy Southworth, founder of the Safety Net Technology project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. There are no concrete numbers on how many domestic violence victims have their smartphones bugged, but local domestic violence hotlines around the US help 72,000 people every day. Southworth's organization surveyed the operators at some of these hotlines, and found that 71 percent of those who help survivors have heard of cases of domestic violence involving technological surveillance.
The spyware companies certainly aren't policing themselves. One company, called HelloSpy, used to advertise its software with a photo of a woman being thrown off a bed. Another image shows a woman with her face cut and bruised. As part of this story, Joseph called up customer service for a company called MobiStealth.
"Could I use this to spy on say, my wife or lover?," Joseph asked.
"Yes, as long as they're a member of your family … you can use the application as long as you have access to the phone," customer service responded.
"Even if I don't get their permission first, as long as I have physical access to the device?" he asked.
"Yes sir," the rep said.