In a recent family law case, I came across an obscure app installed on a young person's device, called Super App Lock. One of a growing number of spy phone apps, this one is activated when anyone tries to unlock the phone on which the app is installed without the correct password or pattern.

When an incorrect password is entered, the app takes a silent photo of the person holding the phone - with no flash and no sound to indicate the photo has been taken.

In this instance, the spy app had been installed by a child who thought her mother was checking her phone, looking for evidence of conversations between the child and her father. It was brought to light in their family law matter.

Broad use of spy phone apps testing limits of the law

There is a growing number of similar spy phone apps on the market. Many are free to download, with the option of in-app purchases which give users additional features.

What is most alarming about this phenomenon is the blurred line between legality and illegality in some of these apps. This is because they have a wide range of uses, from anti-spyware devices that can protect private information, through to outright illegal surveillance applications.

Most commonly used spy apps on the market

While this is not an exhaustive list, the apps featured below give a broad indication of how spy apps are being used throughout the world.

Intruder alert apps

Intruder alert apps are apps that are designed primarily for personal security and privacy protection. They are often designed simply to take a photograph of anyone who fails to open the phone after one or more incorrect attempts.

Popular apps in this category include the following.

  • Lockwatch - This app silently takes a photo and sends it to you when someone tries to unlock your phone with the wrong code. The person is unaware that they are being recorded.
  • Third Eye - This app automatically takes a photo when someone enters the wrong PIN, pattern or password. The app then notifies you and sends you the photo, along with the last unlock time.
  • Crookcatcher - This app hides behind your lock screen and if someone tries to unlock your phone with the wrong code, takes a picture and emails it to you, along with the GPS location of the device.

Vault apps

Designed to either hide or password-protect specific apps on your phone, vault apps can conceal your photo gallery, contact list or social media apps.

Popular apps in this category include the following.

  • Ultra Lock - Doubling as an intruder alert app, this app allows users to password lock individual apps within their phone. So, even if someone unlocks the phone, they can still be kept out of specific files, with additional photos being taken of them each time. It allows the owner of the phone to see exactly what the intruder was trying to access.
  • LOCKit - Similar to Ultra Lock, this app can lock other apps, hide photos and videos, as well as take photos of intruders.
  • Photo Vault - This app stores or locks your photos in a separate private image gallery which is password protected.

Secret audio recording apps

These are spy phone apps that look on the surface to be administrative in nature or useful for dictation, but also include functions that allow users to record others discreetly with minimal notification.

Popular apps in this category include the following.

  • Smart Recorder - Advertised as an intuitive voice recorder, this app automatically deletes silent pauses, reducing the time spent listing through the audio. It also has a subtle "record in the background" function (although it does automatically stop recording during phone calls).
  • GOM Recorder - This app includes a function where it will start recording after the user shakes the phone in a certain pattern. The only indication that the phone is recording is a small vibration when the recording starts.
  • Voice Recorder - This spy app can record in the background while the phone screen is locked.

Secret video recording apps

These are spy phone apps which are capable of commencing a recording with no visual or aural warning. Some can even record at scheduled times, or while the screen is turned off.

Popular apps in this category include the following.

  • Background Video Recorder - This app allows users to record video with a single click, giving the option to disable camera shutter sounds and video previews. The app can record while the screen is off and can be scheduled to start recording at specific times. The very first review for this app in the Google Play store says: "This app is a lifesaver in court, in case of an accident or a legal statement or substance for a legal case," demonstrating how important it is for lawyers to be aware of these apps.
  • Alfred Security Camera - This app has the ability to connect your current phone to another device, turning the second device into a security camera wherever you leave it.
  • Silent Secret Camera HD - This app allows you to disable the camera sound and take a silent video, during both day and night.

Secret phone call recording apps

Secret phone call recording apps can be installed on your own phone, allowing you to record your conversations with a silent tap of a button, or they can be more insidious and be installed on another phone, allowing you to monitor another person's activities remotely.

Popular apps in this category include the following.

  • Spyzie - This app is advertised as a parental monitoring tool but can also be used for other purposes. The app is installed on the "child's" phone and can be remotely accessed by the parent to record phone calls, look at their contact list and view text messages. It even has a built-in location tracker. The app is completely invisible, so the person who has it installed on their phone has no idea it's there.
  • Call Recorder Pro - This app is compatible with DropBox, making it even easier to back up your illegally recorded conversations.
  • TTSPY - This app is described by its creators as having "all the features that you need to stalk or spy on someone without them ever finding out." This app openly defies the principles of any privacy laws.

Mimic or invisible apps

Mimic or invisible apps are apps with similar functions to the apps described above, but cleverly disguised as another type of app. The app itself hides from being detected, adding another layer of security.

A popular app in this category is an intruder alert or vault app disguised as a fully functional scientific calculator.

Legalities around recording a private conversation with a spy app

While the installation of apps that monitor, record, or track the use of someone's phone and private conversations would be deemed illegal under Part 2 of the NSW Surveillance Devices Act 2007, the laws around surveillance differ from state to state.

Additionally, many exceptions exist which allow law enforcement agencies to engage in monitoring practices with appropriate warrants.

Many young people also seem to think it is standard practice to record "important" conversations without telling the other parties involved. Conversations with a lawyer or other professional might fall into such a category.

It may be good practice when conferencing with clients to ask that all devices be silent and not recording before you commence.

Think twice before using a spy phone app

Be cautious of how you choose to use these apps.

While there are situations where such actions may not be prosecuted, such as the monitoring of a child's phone which could be viewed as a reasonable parenting procedure, trying to record privileged information in most other circumstances can attract severe penalties.

Concerned that your partner is monitoring you via a spy phone app?

You should always be aware of suspicious apps that appear on your phone which you have no recollection of installing.

It's important to remember that with the right technology and experience it is a very real possibility that someone can install these apps remotely, so don't allow yourself to fall into a false sense of security just because nobody else has physical access to your phone.

If you believe your phone may be being monitored and you are concerned for your safety, you should contact the police before seeking technical advice from an IT service provider to assist in removing any possible monitoring applications.

If someone you know is being monitored by a partner using apps like this without permission, it could be a sign of domestic violence or coercive control.

Nick Burton
Criminal law
Stacks Collins Thompson

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.