RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilians were outraged when they learned their country was a top target of the U.S. National Security Agency’s overseas spying operation, with data from billions of calls and emails swept up in Washington’s top secret surveillance program.
Yet when it comes to the cloak-and-dagger effort of catching philandering lovers, all high-tech weapons appear to be fair game – at least to the tens of thousands of Brazilians who downloaded Boyfriend Tracker to their smartphones before the stealthy software was removed from the Google Play app store last week, apparently in response to complaints about privacy abuses and its potential to be used for extortion or even stalking.
Brazilians are a jealous people, what can I say? Of course it’s going to be popular, said Marcia Almeida, a 47-year-old woman in Rio whose marriage ended seven years ago in large part because of what she said was her husband’s infidelity.
It’s a different type of spying, she said of comparisons to the NSA surveillance program. You’re checking up on somebody you know intimately, not some stranger.
The app, called Rastreador de Namorados (Portuguese for Boyfriend Tracker), promises to act like a private detective in your partner’s pocket.
Functions include sending the tracker updates on their partner’s location and forwarding duplicates of text message traffic from the targeted phone. There is even a command that allows a user to force the target phone to silently call their own, like a pocket dial, so they can listen in on what the person is saying.
Similar apps are marketed for smartphone users in other countries, including Europe and the U.S., but Boyfriend Tracker is the first to become popular in Brazil, a country still irate as it learns more about Washington’s snooping.
Brazil has sent a government delegation to meet with U.S. leaders about the spy program that was revealed by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who has been on the run since May and was recently granted asylum in Russia.
Critics say even as advertised, apps like Boyfriend Tracker can violate privacy rights, and they warn that in the wrong hands, they could be used for more sinister purposes, like stalking.
To install Boyfriend Tracker, suspicious partners have to get their hands on their loved one’s smartphones and upload the app.
Matheus Grijo, a 24-year-old Sao Paulo developer behind Boyfriend Tracker, said the app began as a joke between him and his girlfriend but the idea quickly caught on.
In Brazil, we have this culture of switching partners really quickly, so this is a way of dealing with that, said Grijo. People really appreciate having a tool to help them find out whether they’re being cheated on.