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FTC takes a stand against stalker apps through Retina-X court settlement

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Spyware on your smartphone: How to deal with it
Surveillance isn’t just the purview of nation-states and government agencies — sometimes, it is closer to home.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken a stand against stalkerware applications in a first-of-its-kind settlement with  Retina-X Studios.  

This week, FTC attorney Lisa Weintraub Schifferle said the company, the maker of stalker software including MobileSpy, PhoneSheriff, and TeenShield, failed to make sure the apps were used for legitimate purposes. 

Retina-X markets their apps as legitimate software offering “parental controls for mobile.” 

However, the apps could be purchased by anyone who wanted to use the software, and for any purpose — whether this would be monitoring their child’s device, or for more nefarious purposes such as covertly spying on a spouse or another family member. 

See also: Major biometrics data leak impacts UK Metropolitan Police, banks, enterprise companies

PhoneSheriff, for example, is an Android application that facilitated GPS tracking, call recording, text message access, and the plundering of Internet browsing histories. 

These highly-invasive features did not only raise the ire of the US agency. Last year, a hacktivist threatened to “burn the company to the ground” and later compromised the firm’s network, leading to Retina-X halting new orders for the apps in May 2018. 

“Retina-X Studios, which offers cutting edge technology that helps parents and employers gather important information on devices they own, has been the victim of sophisticated and repeated illegal hackings,” the company said at the time. “The perpetrators of these illegal acts have been motivated by their unfounded opposition to the private activities of parents and employers on devices they own and with the consent of users of the devices.”

The FTC’s complaint is not fully focused on the capabilities of the software — but rather a lack of checks in how it is used. 

“They were marketed for monitoring children and employees, but in the wrong hands, they let abusers track people’s physical movements and online activities,” Schifferle said. 

No procedures were in place to check how the apps would be utilized, the FTC says, and instead, their use would often require the overall security of mobile devices to be weakened through jailbreaking or device rooting. 

Another affront to legitimate use was the removal of the app icons after installation. If device monitoring was truly intended for business or parental use, then knowledge — and consent — could be implied, but not if there was no trace of spying on a device with the software installed. 

This, in turn, could lead to stalking, spying, and abuse.

The FTC was also unhappy with Retina-X’s data protection practices. When the hacktivist compromised the software developer’s servers, images generated by TeenShield and PhoneSheriff were exposed. 

Now the case is settled (.PDF), Retina-X has agreed to make sure their apps are only used for “legitimate purposes” in the future, and the company has also been told to destroy all of the data previously collected by their apps. In addition, Retina-X must set up a “comprehensive information security program.”

CNET: Firefox now shines a light on websites that track you

ZDNet has previously published a comprehensive guide on how to find out if your smartphone has been infected with stalkerware. Retina-X software has made the list. 

Generally speaking, there are some basic steps you can take to try and ascertain if your device has been compromised by spyware or stalker apps. 

TechRepublic: University center to research ways to protect electronic systems from sabotage

Keep an eye out for any suspicious device behavior as well as any unexpected power drain. These types of applications may not be immediately apparent and are usually hidden from view, but they still require juice to run. 

In addition, a key clue is checking to see if your device has been rooted without your knowledge — Root Checker will do the hard work for you — as well as whether or not apps are permitted to install outside of official app repositories. 

Update 16.16 BST: Retina-X counsel told ZDNet:

“While the firm’s clients were the unfortunate victims of a skilled hacker, they would like to thank the FTC for its professionalism during the course of the investigation.”

Previous and related coverage


Have a tip? Get in touch securely via WhatsApp | Signal at +447713 025 499, or over at Keybase: charlie0




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The Five Pillars of (Azure) Cloud-based Application Security

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This 1-hour webinar from GigaOm brings together experts in Azure cloud application migration and security, featuring GigaOm analyst Jon Collins and special guests from Fortinet, Director of Product Marketing for Public Cloud, Daniel Schrader, and Global Director of Public Cloud Architecture and Engineering, Aidan Walden.

These interesting times have accelerated the drive towards digital transformation, application rationalization, and migration to cloud-based architectures. Enterprise organizations are looking to increase efficiency, but without impacting performance or increasing risk, either from infrastructure resilience or end-user behaviors.

Success requires a combination of best practice and appropriate use of technology, depending on where the organization is on its cloud journey. Elements such as zero-trust access and security-driven networking need to be deployed in parallel with security-first operations, breach prevention and response.

If you are looking to migrate applications to the cloud and want to be sure your approach maximizes delivery whilst minimizing risk, this webinar is for you.

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Data Management and Secure Data Storage for the Enterprise

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This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research brings together experts in data management and security, featuring GigaOm Analyst Enrico Signoretti and special guest from RackTop Systems, Jonathan Halstuch. The discussion will focus on data storage and how to protect data against cyberattacks.

Most of the recent news coverage and analysis of cyberattacks focus on hackers getting access and control of critical systems. Yet rarely is it mentioned that the most valuable asset for the organizations under attack is the data contained in these systems.

In this webinar, you will learn about the risks and costs of a poor data security management approach, and how to improve your data storage to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a compromised infrastructure.

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CISO Podcast: Talking Anti-Phishing Solutions

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Simon Gibson earlier this year published the report, “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” which assessed more than a dozen security solutions focused on detecting and mitigating email-borne threats and vulnerabilities. As Gibson noted in his report, email remains a prime vector for attack, reflecting the strategic role it plays in corporate communications.

Earlier this week, Gibson’s report was a featured topic of discussions on David Spark’s popular CISO Security Vendor Relationship Podcast. In it, Spark interviewed a pair of chief information security officers—Mike Johnson, CISO for SalesForce, and James Dolph, CISO for Guidewire Software—to get their take on the role of anti-phishing solutions.

“I want to first give GigaOm some credit here for really pointing out the need to decide what to do with detections,” Johnson said when asked for his thoughts about selecting an anti-phishing tool. “I think a lot of companies charge into a solution for anti-phishing without thinking about what they are going to do when the thing triggers.”

As Johnson noted, the needs and vulnerabilities of a large organization aligned on Microsoft 365 are very different from those of a smaller outfit working with GSuite. A malicious Excel macro-laden file, for example, poses a credible threat to a Microsoft shop and therefore argues for a detonation solution to detect and neutralize malicious payloads before they can spread and morph. On the other hand, a smaller company is more exposed to business email compromise (BEC) attacks, since spending authority is often spread among many employees in these businesses.

Gibson’s radar report describes both in-line and out-of-band solutions, but Johnson said cloud-aligned infrastructures argue against traditional in-line schemes.

“If you put an in-line solution in front of [Microsoft] 365 or in front of GSuite, you are likely decreasing your reliability, because you’ve now introduced this single point of failure. Google and Microsoft have this massive amount of reliability that is built in,” Johnson said.

So how should IT decision makers go about selecting an anti-phishing solution? Dolph answered that question with a series of questions of his own:

“Does it nail the basics? Does it fit with the technologies we have in place? And then secondarily, is it reliable, is it tunable, is it manageable?” he asked. “Because it can add a lot overhead, especially if you have a small team if these tools are really disruptive to the email flow.”

Dolph concluded by noting that it’s important for solutions to provide insight that can help organizations target their protections, as well as support both training and awareness around threats. Finally, he urged organizations to consider how they can measure the effectiveness of solutions.

“I may look at other solutions in the future and how do I compare those solutions to the benchmark of what we have in place?”

Listen to the Podcast: CISO Podcast

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