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Two phone surveillance services have closed down after their owner settled state charges of illegally promoting the spyware his companies had developed.
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’s consortium of New York-based and Florida-based technology companies developed PhoneSpector, Highster and Highster. A settlement agreement was reached in which the company agreed to pay $410,000 to settle charges that Hinchy’s companies advertised and “aggressively promoted” spyware that allowed the secret phone surveillance of individuals living in New York state.
Letitia James, 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.
Since the settlement both PhoneSpector Highster have gone offline.
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 no longer use the domains, servers & back-end infrastructure that they previously used.
TechCrunch dialed phone numbers associated with PhoneSpector or Highster customer support, but an automated response said that the numbers were 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 typically require companies to file paperwork at least every two years.
Hinchy has not responded to TechCrunch’s multiple 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 replied to TechCrunch via email that certain recent filings could answer some of the questions we had about the case. “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.
In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission Bringing 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.
A year after, The FTC has banned SpyFone, a maker of stalkerwarea number of companies, including the surveillance industry and its chief executive Scott Zuckerman, have accused the company of failing in their duty to protect the data they secretly collected from the phones of unaware victims. A TechCrunch investigation later found Zuckerman SpyTrac, a new app for stalkerware, is back.TechCrunch had contacted Zuckerman to ask for a comment.