Brazilians were outraged when they learned their country was a top target of the U.S. National Security Agency’s top secret overseas spying operation, but it seems that all bets are off when it comes to catching cheaters.
Tens of thousands managed to download the software before it was pulled off the market.
Boyfriend tracker: Google Play has taken the controversial app off the market in Brazil
‘Brazilians are a jealous people, what can I say? Of course it’s going to be popular,’ said Marcia Almeida, a 47-year-old woman in Rio whose marriage ended seven years ago in large part because of what she said was her husband’s infidelity.
‘It’s a different type of spying,’ she said of comparisons to the NSA surveillance program. ‘You’re checking up on somebody you know intimately, not some stranger.’
The app, called Rastreador de Namorados – Portugese for Boyfriend Tracker – promises to act like a ‘private detective in your partner’s pocket.’
Functions include sending the person doing the tracking updates on their partner’s location and forwarding duplicates of text message traffic from the targeted phone.
THE TRUTH ABOUT ‘STALKER’ APPS
Spyware that works via GPS is marketed as a way to keep children safe or find lost phones, but a growing number of apps claim users can conduct NSA-level surveillance for less than a cup of coffee.
There are now apps available that allow you to read a partner’s text messages, listen in on calls, and check calendars.
Some even remotely turn on a microphone so users can listen in to what their lover is doing at any time.
For $8 per month, Stealthgenie promises to deliver all of the above functions and be undetectable.
Other apps, like Spy Your Love, ironically claim to work on a ‘trust system’.
The idea is that each member of a couple agrees to constant mutual monitoring of call histories, SMS and Facebook communication.
Others are more brazen. Cheating Boyfriend bills itself as ‘great for suspicious boyfriends or the stalker on the go.’
Then there are technologies like GPS Tracking Pro that are, in theory, marketed to parents.
But in practice, who knows whether the person installing the app is watching her son after school or her boyfriend after work?
Almost all websites for products have disclaimers warning people not to use their products for illegal purposes.
The definition of ‘consent’, it seems, is crucial.
In 2011 Japanese company Manuscript was forced to modify their Boyfriend Log app after complaints that the app ran in the background without users knowing.
In 2009 the Supreme Court ruled that police attaching GPS devices to cars was ‘unreasonable search and seizure,’ and some states have laws against cyberstalking.
But for private citizens, GPS on phones remains a legal grey area.
It’s the subject of a federal bill to close the loophole, but companies that create the apps insist that the technology is meant for legal monitoring.
So the husband listed on your family plan or the boss who gave you the company smartphone may be within his rights to keep tabs on you.
The app market saw record growth in 2013, and there are now a number of anti-spyware options as well.
There is even a command that allows a user to force the target phone to silently call their own, like a pocket dial, so they can listen in on what the person is saying.
Similar apps are marketed for smartphone users in other countries, including Europe and the U.S., but Boyfriend Tracker is the first that has made any impact in Brazil, a country still irate as it learns more about Washington’s snooping.
Brazil has sent a government delegation to meet with U.S. leaders about the spy program that was revealed by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who has been on the run since May and was recently granted asylum in Russia.
Google spokeswoman Gina Johnson said by email that as a policy the company doesn’t comment on why apps are removed.
Critics say even as advertised, apps like Boyfriend Tracker can violate privacy rights, and they warn that in the wrong hands they could be used for more sinister purposes, like stalking.
Some in Brazil argue it breaks an anti-online harassment and hacking law in place since April.
The law is named after Brazilian actress Carolina Dieckmann, who had nude photos of herself leaked by hackers in 2012 after she refused to pay about $5,000.
However, similar apps popular on Google Play market themselves to parents as a means of monitoring how teenage children use the phone and where they are at any given moment.
Matheus Grijo, a 24-year-old Sao Paulo-based developer behind Boyfriend Tracker, says it has attracted around 50,000 users since its launch about two months ago.
Mr Grijo insists his lawyer vetted the app and determined it does not violate any Brazilian laws. Despite being removed by Google, it is still available via direct download from his company’s website.
A disclaimer on that website stipulates the app is for ‘social and recreational use’ and absolves the developer of responsibility for any misuse.
The first line of the download instructions says a woman installing the tracker on her boyfriend’s phone should do so ‘ with his consent’.
‘We are waiting for Google’s position on the removal of Boyfriend Tracker from Google Play, which we consider an error,’ read a posting on a Facebook page Grijo set up for the app.
To install Boyfriend Tracker, suspicious partners have to get their hands on their loved one’s smartphones and upload the app.
A free version leaves the app’s icon visible on the target’s phone, while a version that costs $2 a month masks the icon.
Mr Grijo said the app began as a joke between him and his girlfriend but the idea quickly caught on among their friends.
‘In Brazil, we have this culture of switching partners really quickly, so this is a way of dealing with that,’ said Grijo.
‘People really appreciate having a tool to help them find out whether they’re being cheated on.’
He acknowledged that ‘of course some people are against it, but on balance the response from users has been positive.’
He said he’s received messages of gratitude from around 50 people who used the app to ferret out their partners’ infidelity.
While cheating in Brazil cuts both ways, the app is clearly marketed to women suspicious of their male partners, right down to the name. Postings on the app’s Facebook page exhort: ‘Girls, share this.’
Still, Mr Grijo insisted he personally has never given his girlfriends any reason to worry.
‘I’ve had three steady girlfriends until now but I’ve never had these kinds of issues,’ he said.
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