Two out of every 1,000 employee smartphones in the U.S., on average, are infected with commercial "child-monitoring" spyware, according to a study by security firms Lacoon Mobile Security and Check Point.
For larger organizations, the infection rates are even higher, according to Michael Shaulov, CEO of Lacoon.
The study started with 900,000 smartphones connected to corporate Wi-Fi networks around the world, looking for any of the 18 most common commercially-available mobile surveillance kits.
On average, 0.12 percent of all devices worldwide were infected, with Austria in the lead at 0.36 percent, followed by the U.S. at 0.21 percent.
However, the infections were not evenly distributed. The larger the organization, the more likely it was that its devices were infected. Some organizations had no infections at all, and some companies had significantly more infected devices than would have been expected.
"If you go to their websites, they all brand themselves as child monitors," said Shaulov. "But it doesn't make sense to find child monitoring software in a corporate environment."
Another potential personal use is to catch cheating spouses.
"If that's the main use case, then you would expect that the infection rate would be even across all organizations," said Shaulov.
Instead, he said, the software seems to be being used for targeted attacks against specific companies.
The way that it works is that the spy needs to get physical access to the device, and, if necessary, shoulder-surf to get the access code.
Then, within a few seconds on an Android, the spy can install the software. On an iPhone, it can take up to five minutes, Shaulov said, because the software requires that the phone be jailbroken.
Despite the added difficulty, however, the rates of infection on iPhones are nearly on a par with Android -- 0.12 percent on Android versus 0.10 percent on iOS.
"It's pretty straightforward to compromise an iPhone if you have physical access to it," he said.
Moreover, the software hides any visual signs that the phone has been jailbroken, and also hides the presence of the app itself.
The study also reported the most common types of surveillance software used, with Mspy in the lead with about a third of all infections, closely followed by Spy2Mobile and Bosspy in distant third place.
What makes these applications particularly dangerous, said Shaulov, is that it gets full access to the device, including messages, phone conversations, emails, GPS, and microphone. Other features include monitoring Internet use, keylogging, and geofencing.
"Once you install it on someone else's device, you have access to their calendar," he said. "You known when they have important meetings, and you can eavesdrop on their meetings."
The device reports back to a central command-and-control server where the spy can use a simple web-based system to get access to the device. Mspy, for example, offers real-time email alerts of when the device enters or leaves a particular area.
According to Shaulov, some of the more advanced anti-malware apps for the Android will block the spyware, but the iPhone options are lacking.
Lacoon's own mobile security software, which integrates with mobile device management suites, does check that both Android and iOS devices are not compromised. But it is only available for enterprise, not individual use.