Such technical and legal ambiguity has created an environment in which tools are marketed for both legal and illegal uses, without apparent repercussion.
“There are definitely app makers that are complicit, seeking out these customers and advertising this use,” said Periwinkle Doerfler, a doctoral student at New York University and an author of the study on apps, which will be presented in the coming days. “They’re a little bit under the radar about it, but they’re still doing it.”
The researchers, from N.Y.U., Cornell University and Cornell Tech, contacted customer support for nine companies with tracking services. The researchers claimed to be women who wanted to secretly track their husbands, and only one company, TeenSafe, refused to assist.
KidGuard, the app largely aimed at parents, also bought ads alongside Google results for searches like “catch cheating spouse app.” A spokesman for the business, based in Los Angeles, said in an email that the company worked with third-party marketers and customer service reps who had been “testing new strategies.” It deleted blog posts about tracking romantic partners and said it did not support that activity.
Spyzie, another app that ran such ads, did not respond to requests for comment.
On YouTube, dozens of videos provide tutorials on using several of the apps to catch cheating lovers. The videos frequently link back to the app makers’ sites using a special code that ensures the promoter will get a cut of the sale — a type of deal known as affiliate marketing.
Affiliate marketing also appeared on multiple websites that discussed using surveillance apps to track romantic partners. One site, spyblog.ml, had posts about spying on “loved ones” and linked to mSpy. The app company said that its terms of service prohibited illegal activity and that it would block the site from its affiliate program.