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Stalkers using smartphone apps

Publication Date : 06-01-2014


'Who knows how many people out there are being watched without realising it?'


“You shouldn’t be singing AKB to attract guys.”

A 29-year-old woman had just returned to her apartment in the Hokuriku region around dawn one morning in May 2012 when this message arrived on her smartphone, as if it had been waiting for her.

“Drinking some beer, huh?” Another message said.

And: “Were you at a get-together?”

The woman had in fact just been belting out some AKB48 songs with a friend at a local karaoke joint.

The messages were from a man she had just broken up with a few days before.

“Was I being watched?” she thought with a shudder, setting her phone down on the side of the bed.

Just then she heard the shutter tone of the phone’s camera. “Is someone controlling my smartphone?” she thought, as her hands began to shake uncontrollably.

She calmed down enough to head to a nearby police station just before noon.

The police determined that just before they broke up, the man had installed an application on her smartphone through which he could control it remotely.

He was able to view her smartphone screen on his computer, and had apparently looked at her e-mail at least six times and her call history four times, in addition to accessing her location information.

He is also said to have turned on the phone’s recorder to listen in on what was going on around her.

The man, 37, was arrested on suspicion of using a computer virus and papers concerning the case were sent to prosecutors seven months later, but they decided not to indict him.

The man reportedly told police he wanted to determine if the woman’s claim that she had been faithful to him was true.

“I always have my smartphone on me. To think that it was acting as a stalker’s eyes and ears - it’s terrifying, like a horror movie,” the woman said.

The app used in this case claims it can, “Find your smartphone if it is lost, using its location information,” and is available for free on the online app store run by Google Inc.

“If used correctly, it’s a convenient app, but it could be used as a tool for criminals,” said Takayuki Sugiura, president of Netagent Co.

According to Sugiura, remote-control apps started appearing around 2011 and there are now around a dozen available on the market. Such apps have reportedly been downloaded more than 10 million times.

Indicating it intends to address the problem of malicious apps, a study group run by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry said in September that “nonproblematic apps should be given a ‘seal of approval’ and malicious apps should be removed.”

The ministry included 500 million yen (US$4.8 million) in its budget for next fiscal year, and is planning to begin technical inspections.

However, “It would be difficult to judge an app that correctly explains its functions as ‘malicious,’” a ministry official in charge of the matter said.

“We probably couldn’t label [the app used in the Hokuriku case] as ‘bad,’ since all of its functions are disclosed,” the official said.

There has been a sharp rise in the use of data-sharing services, which can also be used for malicious purposes.

A 27-year-old woman from Kanagawa Prefecture started to be concerned about messages from her ex-boyfriend in March 2012.

Whenever she went out, she would get messages that pinpointed her location, such as, “At karaoke now?” or “In Harajuku.”

There were also threats: “I’ve got the power in Ebisu. Pretty sure you’ll lose.”

The woman reported the incidents to the Kanagawa prefectural police that May, and the man was eventually found guilty of violating the Antistalking Law.

The investigation revealed that the man, 32, had installed software for a data-sharing service he used on the woman’s computer in October 2011.

The woman had set it up so her smartphone data was automatically uploaded to the computer, so the man was able to access her location data anytime he wanted.

She was under this kind of “surveillance” for half a year until the man was arrested.

This data-sharing service, which launched at the end of 2010, now has tens of thousands of domestic users. Installation is simple and does not require a personal identification number.

After the man and woman broke up, he used the pretext of erasing his data to gain access to her computer.

The man had no special knowledge of information technology. He testified during the investigation that he learned how to use the software on a website.

“I would urge people to first check the apps installed on their smartphones,” a senior investigative official said. “Who knows how many people out there are being watched without realising it?”

The data-sharing service does not store documents, photos and other data on individual devices such as computers or smartphones, but at an external data center. It is designed to facilitate the sharing of data among several different people and devices.

The original story appeared in the December 19 issue of The Yomiuri Shimbun.


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