Are phone monitoring companies profiting from paranoia?
Cell phone monitoring companies are more often than not living double lives. On the one hand, they are self-proclaimed guardian angels, watching over children who would otherwise be at risk without careful monitoring. On the other hand, they are capable of becoming a malicious vehicle at the disposal of paranoid individuals whose only aim is to spy on their partners without detection.
To understand where the line is between truth and fiction, we conducted research to see how creators of phone monitoring apps are targeting their customers. The aim of the research was to find out what kind of advertising techniques they are using to try and sell their products, and what type of customer they are trying to attract.
Across the board, the websites of all the companies we looked at portrayed a safe and legitimate space. Common themes that we saw around marketing was to suggest they were the best solution to keep kids safe or help maintain employee productivity. It is well known, however, that these apps are often misused by someone who wants to spy on another person without their permission.
To cover themselves from a legal perspective, companies will post fine-print disclaimers on their websites saying that you need to get the device-owner’s permission first before using the app. Away from their public facing websites, however, we have seen them advertising their products in such a way that suggests its primary use is for spying or stalking. One such example of this was an advert for mSpy that was seen on Twitter a couple of years ago. We wanted to find out if this was still going on.
So, how did we go about our research?
We looked at several of the top iOS and Android phone monitoring providers and did the following:
- Performed reverse searches against various ad platforms (Google, Facebook, Native) for current and historic ads that promote the companies’ products.
- Reviewed website content (including blog posts) to identify SEO tactics employed and the keywords they target, which would show the sort of customer they are trying to appeal to.
- Checked if what they claim their products are intended for (i.e. to keep your kids safe) are reflected in their ads or SEO efforts.
What did we find?
Almost universally, we found that phone monitoring companies were stating on their homepage and product pages that their software is intended to be used to monitor and protect children or to legally monitor employees. Despite these claims, we found several instances of ads and blog posts that are designed to entice people who are thinking about spying on their partner. The nature of the adverts also led us to believe that this would be undertaken without their partner’s permission.
Below is what we found from just a few of the main phone monitoring software providers:
Clevguard market themselves with the tagline “Protect what’s precious to you, be it your families or employees.”
Despite this, we discovered two questionable Google ads, one that advertises Clevguard as being “Hidden and undetectable” and the other which talks about “Apps to hack WhatsApp remotely without being detected”. The wording used in these ads suggests the type of customer that Clevguard is trying to reach, which does not align with their website marketing or their disclaimer that customers must get the device owner’s permission before using the service.
Pages from Clevguard’s website also appear on Google when using the search term ‘partner tracker’, which would indicate the company has allocated advertising spend to these specific words or ones closely related to them. The ad that appeared during our research was titled “The Best 8 Phone Tracker Apps for Cheater’s Phone Tracking”, which seems to actively encourage tracking/spying on a partner’s phone.
mSpy’s tagline suggests a wholly innocent motivation to download the app: “Phone Monitoring App for Parental Control -> Protect your kids from cyberbullying, online predators, inappropriate & violent content, and other online dangers. Keep an eye on all of your kid’s phone activities wherever you are!”
Yet, some of the content within their Google adverts suggests the company offers spying tools that are designed to be used without permission. One advert even uses the word ‘stealth’, which suggests the app can be used to hack someone’s device or spy on their messages without permission.
We also found one ad that appeared on a native ad network in January 2021, promoting an mSpy product with the tagline “Read Your Partner’s Messages”.
With a common pattern quickly emerging, we found Highster advertise themselves as “The ultimate way to keep your children safe and employees productive.”
While we didn’t find any specific adverts promoting spying via the app, they did have a blog post that is clearly trying to capture people interested in partner spying. The blog is titled “Cheating apps to look for on his phone 2021”.
The above post is apparently the second most visited page on their website at the time of writing, according to SEO and ad intelligence tool SpyFu. Again, this offers a clearer picture of the way that the app is utilised and what kind of people are downloading these apps.
XNSpy advertise themselves as “An all-in-one parental and employee monitoring software that will keep you updated on their activities in real-time, all the time!”
Like Highster, however, XNSpy has a blog post that is targeting people looking to hack into a phone. According to SpyFu, this blog post is the 5th most popular page on their entire website. Not surprisingly, they recommend their own product as the best solution for someone looking to hack a phone.
What does all this mean?
When we looked at the top iOS and Android phone monitoring providers, we found hardly any adverts on any platform that promoted the use of the software for protecting children, nor for any other related claims they have on their website such as cyber bullying, stopping predators, or monitoring inappropriate content.
So, why is there such a disconnect from the image portrayed on their website? To understand the disconnect we first need to examine the research takeaways:
- Phone monitoring companies portray their software as safety devices for children, employees and consenting partners. Most importantly, these websites also have disclaimers stating it is illegal to use without the device owner’s permission.
- Despite this, only a handful of the adverts we found mentioned any of these uses. In fact, the vast majority of adverts were actually promoting something entirely different.
- They were highlighting the fact that their software could be used without detection. They also specifically targeted people wanting to discreetly spy on their partner.
So, the target of the advert therefore is completely different from the customer profile implied on the website. Rather than a concerned family member, the companies appear to be speaking directly to someone looking to spy on their partner. It would be safe to assume that if someone wants to track their partner’s phone, they often aren’t asking their permission.
It is, however, not all doom and gloom and improvements are being made, especially when compared with several years ago. In 2020, Google started banning ads on their network that promote “products and services that secretly track or monitor people”. As a result, it is getting harder for cell phone monitoring companies to promote their products in this way, though there is clearly still work to do to catch those slipping through the net. We also did not find any questionable ads for phone monitoring apps on Facebook. In recent years the social media giant has been trying to improve their brand safety, so perhaps this is evidence of this initiative.
The clamp down has meant that cell phone monitoring companies are moving more towards SEO / content marketing techniques to capture new customers which has reduced their overall reach but still gives them access to people with malicious intent.
In the meantime, we recommend individuals remain vigilant to maintain good phone security as well as running routine spyware scans with apps such as Certo AntiSpy for iPhone or Certo Mobile Security for Android.