Are Spy Apps Legal?

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Nowadays we can do most tasks on our smartphones: shop, pay bills, and pay for rides. 

Technology is very sophisticated nowadays, including the ability to spy on someone else through spy apps.

Spy apps are often installed with the knowledge of the device’s owner. It is usually used by employers, parents, and caregivers.

Spy apps and spyware are often used interchangeably. However, spyware is harmful software that is usually used by cybercriminals for identity theft and other forms of cyber attacks. 

In this article, discover how spy apps work, whether they are legal in the U.S., and the laws surrounding them.

How Do Spy Apps Work?

Spy apps are applications or mini-programs you can download from the internet or an app store. Often, parents use these apps to keep the internet safe for their children. 

When downloaded on a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop, they run in the background and collect a range of sensitive information such as:

  • Texts and calls
  • Audio and video
  • Images
  • Location

They can also access emails and other apps and use the device’s microphone. Some apps can even stream live audio and video.

These are all beneficial when keeping track of personal and family needs, as well as in business. However, placed in the wrong hands, it can be devastating.

Spy Apps Usage: Both Legal and Illegal 

It’s common knowledge that it’s illegal to spy on people’s activities on their devices without their consent. While spy apps are helpful for parents and employers, there can also be legal implications if they’re not used correctly.

Federal and State Laws Governing Spy Apps 

The following federal and state laws are mainly derived from the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2523). These laws shed light on the use of both spyware and spy apps and the penalties involved when you use them for inappropriate purposes. 

Federal Laws

According to ECPA, it is illegal to record another person’s conversation with someone unless you are the other person in the conversation. The One-Party Consent Rules of The Wiretap Act can be applied here. 

The Wiretap Act found in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) of 1986 includes restrictions on wiretapping electronic data transmissions by computers and other digital devices. It also criminalizes attempted wiretapping and eavesdropping.

According to the act, secretly recording all forms of communication becomes illegal because they are “reasonably expected to be private.”

For instance, you use spy software to intercept and read another person’s messages without them knowing. If they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” You could be found liable under federal wiretap laws.

Several bills have also been voted on in the United States Congress, including the following:

  • Spy Block Act (Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge)
  • Spy Act (Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass)
  • I-SPY Act (Internet Spyware Prevention) 

State Laws 

Aside from the ECPA, there aren’t really a lot of laws surrounding the use of spy apps. These apps are often legal unless they are used without consent (if used on an adult). 

While monitoring your children’s devices is legal, it is a different story when you’re tracking adult children. Adult children are entitled to privacy and parents do not have the right to intervene in their adult children’s actions and can be penalized. 

California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Virginia already have laws that broadly prohibit the use of electronic tracking devices in the context of stalking or locating the target person without their consent.

If you’re tracking a spouse who you suspect is having an affair, a spy app can track their movements. But using the information you gathered in court proceedings is illegal.

State lawmakers across the U.S. are also drafting and passing laws that would create new guardrails for social media platforms. For instance, lawmakers in Maryland and California have proposed regulations that include parental oversight requirements in their bills regarding kids’  online safety. Utah, on the other hand, has already written its bill into law just last March.

If you’re a parent, it’s best to inform your kids before installing a spy app on their phones. Let them understand that these apps would work in their favor. 

Consequences of Using Spy Apps Illegally

The Wiretap Act 18 U.S.C. § 2511 in the ECPA and the Internet Spyware Prevention Act explain the punishments for using spy apps illegally.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)

According to the ECPA, engaging in, possessing, using, or disclosing information illegally obtained through electronic eavesdropping or wiretapping is a federal crime. 

This law applies to anyone who intentionally intercepts or attempts to intercept communications electronically using a device or devices unless the person targeted is informed about it.

A person can be charged with any of the several charges below and must face the potential consequences.

ChargesInclusionsPotential Consequences
Intent to wiretapIntentional use of wiretapping and eavesdropping equipment Intentionally intercepting wire, oral, or electronic communications (felony) Attempted wiretapping and eavesdroppingImprisonment for not more than five years; or A fine of not more than $250,000 for individuals A fine of not more than $500,000 for organizations
Possession of Unlawful Wiretapping EquipmentManufacturing, distributing, possessing, [or] advertising wire, oral, or electronic intercepting devices (felony)  Imprisonment for not more than five years; or A fine of not more than $250,000 for individuals A fine of not more than $500,000 for organizations
Disclosure of information Obtained by Unlawful WiretappingUse or disclosing information obtained through illegal wiretapping or electronic eavesdroppingImprisonment for not more than five years; or A fine of not more than $250,000 for individuals A fine of not more than $500,000 for organizations

 Other Countries’ Laws Governing Spy Apps 

The United Kingdom and Canada so far don’t have any specific spy or surveillance app regulations, but like the United States, they incriminate individuals who spy on a  person’s communications and online activities that are  “reasonably expected to be private.”

The U.K. can prosecute any criminal activity like this in several ways under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Canada, on the other hand, has a consumer privacy and data protection law governed by the PIPEDA or the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. 

In China, their new “Personal Information Protection Law,” states that “no party should illegally collect, process, or transmit personal information”. 

The government has ironed out this legislation after one of the nation’s favorite shopping apps, Pinduoduo, was found with malicious software. It aimed at accessing Chinese smartphone owners’ private data. 

China’s legislation is in many ways similar to what the U.S. ECPA of 1986 upholds.

Final Thoughts

Using spy apps has its fair share of advantages and disadvantages. It is important to learn the legal implications of using spy apps to avoid using them illegally.  

Being aware of both benefits and consequences of using spy apps can help you assess your actions while using them. The last thing you want is to betray a person’s trust and face fines and possible jail time.

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