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The owners of two phone monitoring services have agreed to settle accusations that they illegally promoted spyware developed by their companies.
PhoneSpector and Highster were consumer-grade phone monitoring apps that facilitated the covert surveillance of a person’s smartphone. Commonly dubbed stalkerware (or spouseware), these apps are typically planted on a person’s phone, often by a spouse or domestic partner and usually with knowledge of the device passcode. These apps are designed to stay hidden from home screens, making them difficult to find and remove, all the while continuously uploading the phone’s messages, photos and real-time location data to a dashboard viewable by the abuser.
In February 2023 Patrick Hinchy and his consortium of New York based and Florida based tech companies, developed PhoneSpector & Highster. The company agreed to pay $410,000 as penalties to settle allegations that Hinchy’s companies advertised and “aggressively promoted” spyware that allowed the secret phone surveillance of individuals living in New York state.
Letitia James is the New York Attorney general Saying at the time that Hinchy’s companies used blog posts that explicitly encouraged prospective customers to use the spyware to monitor their spouses’ devices without their knowledge. As part of the deal, Hinchy’s companies agreed to modify the apps to alert device owners that their phones had been monitored.
Both PhoneSpector (formerly Highster) and PhoneSpector have been taken offline since the settlement.
PhoneSpector’s website stopped loading in the weeks after the settlement. Its domain redirects to a website for Indonesian lotteries. Highster’s website stopped loading several months later.
PhoneSpector, Highster and their domains and servers are no longer available.
TechCrunch tried to call the phone numbers for PhoneSpector customer service and Highster’s customer service, but received an automated message stating that these numbers had been disconnected. The office space in the New York village of Port Jefferson registered to Hinchy’s companies is currently occupied by a construction firm.
Nearly all of Hinchy’s registered companies in New York and Florida remain active, according to public records searches by TechCrunch, but the companies have not filed paperwork with the states for several years and are designated “past due” for updates. State authorities can dissolve companies if they do not file paperwork every 2 years.
Hinchy did NOT respond to TechCrunch’s repeated requests for comment. Michael Weinstein, who represented Hinchy as part of the settlement, deferred comment to the New York attorney general’s office.
Delaney Kempner, director of communications for the New York attorney general’s office, did not answer TechCrunch’s questions about the settlement by email, including whether Hinchy’s companies paid the $410,000 penalty as agreed. Kempner would not agree to TechCrunch’s request for an on-the-record call. Kempner responded to TechCrunch’s specific questions by email, saying that recent filings were the best way to answer our questions. “Hopefully you know how to find them :)” said Kempner.
PhoneSpector Highster is the latest stalkerware app to be taken down by regulatory action in recent years.
The Federal Trade Commission is launching its 2019 Annual Report. Bring chargesRetina-X is accused of failing to secure sensitive data after several data breaches and of not ensuring that its app was being used for legitimate, consensual reasons. Retina-X Eventually shut down.
One year later The FTC banned SpyFone as a stalkerware manufacturerThe surveillance industry has also accused the company and its CEO Scott Zuckerman of failing to safeguard the data they secretly harvested on the phones of their unwitting customers. A TechCrunch investigation later found Zuckerman SpyTrac, a new app for stalkerware, is back.TechCrunch’s request for comment by Zuckerman led to the shutdown of the site.