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Spyware goes mainstream, but how legal is it?

Spy tech is going mainstream – but is it legal?

When we think of spy gadgets we naturally think of secret agents, private-eyes and law enforcement bodies. We think James Bond, Jason Bourne or even Johnny English.

But today this view is increasingly outdated. Ordinary people now have access to a bewildering array of surveillance software and increasingly we are using it on each other.

It could be bosses spying on their workers, concerned parents monitoring their kids’ behaviour, or surveillance of your home. But it can also find itself in the hands of stalkers, abusive partners or for divorce proceedings.

Those in the business state that having spy equipment in today’s world is absolutely integral in ensuring security at your home or workplace. It improves the safety of individuals and the success of a company. It can work as a deterrent against crime and can be used to collect evidence.

But is it legal?

At present anyone who wants to use spying technology must only use it for legitimate security reasons. Government bodies must comply with RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) but in the private sector the rules are more lenient.

Generally, using such equipment you are expected to respect the reasonable privacy of any individual that is involved and abide by statutory regulations on data protection. Any failure to do so can lead to prosecution.


For instance, using apps to track an individual. In the case of a parent, tracking their children is considered a legitimate use to ensure child safety. But, tracking a partner may be considered a breach of privacy and can contravene their human rights.

Experts in the field say that monitoring a loved one isn’t inherently wrong in itself but doing so without their consent, even if well-intentioned, is. Asking for and getting consent is, they say, vital when installing any monitoring devices.


With listening devices, it is legal to install them in your home or workplace but putting it in someone’s else’s home or car or in a private area like a bathroom is illegal.

Tapping phones can be a legal minefield. While it is legal for you to record your own phone conversations without letting the other person know, you cannot share the information with a third party.

It is illegal to record other people’s phone calls, likewise, making the content of another person’s phone call available to someone not involved is illegal.


Spy cameras have the most stringent of legal requirement. For instance, it is illegal to install cameras in areas deemed private such as bathrooms or changing rooms. Any footage from the camera can only be kept for a reasonable length of time and you are not permitted to release footage to third parties even if there is a legal necessity.

It’s also interesting to note that the ubiquitous CCTV is not allowed to record audio of conversations between members of the public and all CCTV cameras must be registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office.


The term ‘spyware’ usually refers specifically to software, malicious or otherwise, which is installed on a device usually without the owner’s knowledge or consent. Along with other malware, this represents a huge threat to privacy and security.

While some spyware such as cookies and adware may be used for relatively innocent means such as delivering adverts that are more relevant to our interests, others can be far more invasive. At its worst, spyware can be used to harvest account information and passwords, record private online activity and much more.

Counter surveillance

So, with the growth of spying equipment it is inevitable there will be the same growth in counter-surveillance equipment. Anyone is legally entitled to use such equipment if they think that they are being watched, filmed, recorded or monitored.

But while spying software and equipment have become highly sophisticated there are always some tell-tale signs you may be being spied upon.

Signs that your phone or tablet might be infected may include reduced battery life or the device feeling unusually warm, even when not in use. Likewise, any increased data usage and internet activity could imply a spyware infestation.

Another sign of bugging might be unexplained phone charges, phone calls and messages or perhaps the autocorrect features have stopped working correctly.

Signs of infection on your home computer can vary. The most common issues are unexplained pop-ups, increased advertising, windows opening and closing on their own, and the computer slowing down significantly the longer it is switched on.

It is worth investing in a good antivirus for all of your devices. While modern PCs are generally good at busting many viruses on their own, paid antivirus software can be more proactive in blocking attacks. Antiviruses are also available for Android, iOS and Mac.

Image: Blogtrepreneur


A veteran freelance journalist writing extensively on internet news and cybersecurity.
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