Stalkerware apps PhoneSpector and Highster appear shut down

The makers of two phone surveillance services appear to have shuttered after the owner agreed to settle state accusations of illegally promoting spyware that his companies 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, whose consortium of New York and Florida-based tech companies developed PhoneSpector and Highster, agreed to pay $410,000 in penalties to settle accusations that Hinchy’s companies advertised and “aggressively promoted” spyware that allowed the secret phone surveillance of individuals living in New York state.

New York Attorney General Letitia James said 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 and Highster have dropped offline.

PhoneSpector’s website stopped loading in the weeks after the settlement. Its domain now redirects to an Indonesian lottery website. Highster’s website stopped loading several months later.

The domains, servers and back-end infrastructure known to be used by PhoneSpector and Highster are also no longer online.

TechCrunch called phone numbers associated with PhoneSpector and Highster customer service but an automated message said that the numbers had been 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. Companies are typically required to file paperwork every two years or face dissolution by state authorities.

Hinchy did not respond to multiple requests for comment from TechCrunch. 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. In response to specific questions about the case, Kempner told TechCrunch by email that unspecified recent filings would answer some of our questions. “Hopefully you know how to find them :)” said Kempner.

PhoneSpector and Highster are the latest stalkerware apps to have fallen offline in recent years following regulatory action.

In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission brought charges against phone monitoring app maker Retina-X, accusing the company of failing to ensure its app was used for legitimate consensual purposes, and failing to adequately secure the sensitive phone data it siphoned from the phones of unknowing device owners after experiencing several data breaches. Retina-X eventually shut down.

A year later, the FTC banned the stalkerware maker SpyFone and its chief executive Scott Zuckerman from the surveillance industry, also accusing the company of failing to protect the data it secretly harvested from the phones of unwitting victims. A TechCrunch investigation later found Zuckerman returned with a new stalkerware app called SpyTrac, which shut down soon after TechCrunch contacted Zuckerman for comment.

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