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Beware... your mobile phone could be bugged

Spy technology is easily available on the Internet. It could be on your phone right now, but you wouldn't know it. -TNP
Zaihan Mohamed Yusof and Benson Ang

Wed, Jun 12, 2013
The New Paper

Does your mobile phone feel hot even when you've not used it?

Or does the screen light up all of a sudden?

These, according to Mr Vincent Tan of Commercial Investigations LLP, could be tell-tale signs that your mobile phone has been bugged, albeit with cheap software.

Expensive software, which can cost a "few thousands" of dollars, are virtually invisible and undetectable, he says.

The private investigator in his 50s, tells The New Paper on Sunday: "When there's an information leak, chances are, the people closest to you and who have proximity to your mobile phone, may have placed the bug."

These software purport to help monitor children and employees and are available for between $80 and $300. But there are instances where such software seems to have been used to catch out cheating spouses.

Last week, a local blog - apparently created by a man who used such software on his wife's phone - went viral. The resulting graphic and sexual text messages the wife and her lover exchanged were captured and uploaded onto the blog There were even revelations on the paternity of his daughter.

To track employees, kids

We contacted the local company behind the monitoring service, called Handphone Spy, in this particular case.

Its subscription-based programme costs $349 a year. Once installed, it tracks and uploads text messages, Whatsapp exchanges, e-mails and web browsing history into the company's secure server.

It can also identify the location of the tracked phone.

A user has to log in to retrieve the information.

The programme works in the background and is "invisible" to the target.

Its sales manager, who wanted to be known only as Mr Gary, says the soft ware was originally designed to be installed into company phones typically provided for the use by employees.

And it is sometimes used to monitor their children's phone activities.

"Companies can use it to track the location of their drivers at all times. Convoys can also use it to keep track of where their fellow drivers are," he adds "If you have a 15-year-old daughter, you'd be concerned about who she mingles with and whether she will stray.

"Nowadays, you have to not only be concerned about her SMSes, but the WhatsApp and WeChat messages she receives."

But what if users want to keep tabs on their spouses?

Mr Gary acknowledges the programme can be used in this way: "I can't stop you if you want to install it on someone else's phone.

"It's like I produced a knife and sold it to you. If you use the knife to hurt other people, I can't control you, right?"

But the company does not advise users to track their spouses.

"It's actually an intrusion of privacy.

We always inform our users that the main purpose of the software is to monitor children and employees."

While the company will not reveal the number of users it has, he revealed that there are customers in Singapore, Malaysia, China and Hong Kong.

Perfectly legal - for now

Other than using online options like Handphone Spy, you can also buy tracking software, at shops in the Sim Lim area, says lawyer Satwant Singh, who has used one mobile phone software to monitor the people his child meets in chatrooms.

He says he was exercising his right as a concerned parent to monitor his son's activities.

While a parent monitoring his child could be an acceptable use of the technology, what about spying on an unsuspecting adult?

Since there are no privacy laws in Singapore, technically, one is not breaking any legal rules if you install the tracking software on another person's phone.

The Data Protection Act, which is due in 2014, could eventually deal specifically with situations like these, say lawyers we spoke to, since it will address what kind of information can be shared or given out.

The lawyers, however, caution that "evidence" and data gathered in such a way may not be admissible.

Keystone Law Corporation director Bryan Tan was quoted as saying in a previous news report: "If confidential information is accessed without permission, by improper acquisition, then the courts may protect such information."

Mr Singh, 49, explains: "It's different if a wife happens to walk past her husband's mobile phone left on the table and see an incoming message from his lover. That's all right in the eyes of the law."

SMSes may not be enough

In the end, the incriminating SMSes may not be enough to prove that a spouse has committed adultery.

Lawyer Mr Singh says: "Sending lewd messages via SMSes only proves you're a flirt. What you need is a private investigator's photographic evidence of the cheating spouse being caught in the act."

But the layman seems to think otherwise, judging by the requests made to private investigators to have their spouses tracked electronically.

Half of Mr Vincent Tan's clients either want to know if they can track someone electronically or they have been under surveillance.

Of these, more than 60 per cent are spouses who want to know if their other halves are cheating.

When faced with such a request, technical specialists in Mr Tan's company, Commercial Investigations, will do forensic screening, which can last for three hours, for clients to detect if their mobile phones have been tampered with.

He won't turn to spying software yet he says as he cannot be sure the evidence is useable in court.

But Mr Chan adds that he knows his clients are using it anyway.

"Even if I were to say "no", there's nothing to stop the client.

Spy software can be downloaded and bought easily on the Internet. That's what a lot of spouses are doing on their own."

Other tracker apps

WAY GPS Phone Tracking
Free; for Android and BlackBerry

A discreet app that is almost as good as a private detective. But you have to be willing to risk your spouse's wrath if he finds out you have been spying on him.

Its icon does not show up in the apps menu, so your spouse is unlikely to find it.

Even if it is uncovered, the app is listed as an innocuous "Way/s".

Once you have installed it in your significant other's phone, restart the device and you will be prompted to enter an e-mail address and password.

Make sure the GPS is turned on.

Now, all you have to do is log onto with your e-mail and password and you will be able to see his movements, updated every hour.

Upgrade to the premium version for round-the-clock, up-to-the-minute updates.

Family Tracker
$6.99 for Android, $4.98 for iOS

It runs in the background of newer smartphones and allows you to track the location of the target at all times.

Even if the iPhone is rebooted, the app will resume tracking and updating its position.

The app automatically reports location data and lets you monitor it on a web browser or any other device with the app installed.

Handphone Spy
iPhone, Blackberry and Android users

Costs roughly about $365 a year and you are able to monitor a tracked phone - without the owner's knowledge.

Some of the software features allows you to monitor call history, SMSes, e-mails, current location, listen to the phone's surroundings and the phone contact list.

You can view all these on a web-based control panel.

Find My Friends app
iPhone users can download this free app from the iTunes store

What it does is to track friends and family members, telling you how far they are from you in terms of distance.

You could choose to highlight your friend's location in relation to yours via maps or satellite views. But first you would need your friend's permission before he allows you to zero in on his location.

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