Alex agreed to let PJ hack his phone, giving him 24/7 uninterrupted surveillance over his life. This week, everything you can learn about someone who completely surrenders their privacy.

Further Info

Joseph Cox’s FlexiSpy reporting
FlexiKiller
The National Domestic Violence Hotline 
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Show transcript

PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

Alex Goldman…

ALEX GOLDMAN: (laughs) Oh man…oh man…hi!

PJ: Hey!

ALEX: (laughs) How’s it goin’?

PJ: Good. So, a while back we decided to do an experiment.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: And the experiment was this. We had read that Donald Trump uses an old, easy to hack Android phone—a Samsung Galaxy S3. And so we wanted to find out if somebody were able to hack his phone, what could they find out about Donald Trump.

You like very—without very little persuasion—I was like, “Hey, can I hack your cell phone for a while?” And you were like, “Yeah, that’s fine.”

And so what we did is, I bought a Samsung Galaxy S3 off of eBay. I bought some just like, consumer spyware software, I loaded it onto the phone which was really easy, I basically had to jailbreak it and then visit one website, which took about five minutes. You agreed to not use your iPhone, to only use this phone, which meant that I had unfettered access to your life.

ALEX: And I just want to—I have to lot say about my exper—(laughs) about my experience.

PJ: That’s why we’re here.

ALEX: First of all, using this phone was like a painful odyssey. Like I just felt like I was using a phone that felt, um, totally alien to me. Not only because it’s not an iPhone but because it’s older. It’s like 6 or 7 years old, and in technology years that’s like—

PJ: Three decades.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: So what? So what was hard?

ALEX: (sighs) Well, let’s see. Wh—what was hard?

PJ: You have it right now?

ALEX: I have the phone in my hand.

PJ: It’s like a—it looks like an old pho—like it’s like—it’s kind of life from the era where things were rounded in a way that’s supposed to look high tech, but it just looks like somebody’s birth control container.

ALEX: (laughs) It look—there’s a ton of shovelware on here, just like a—

PJ: What’s shovelware?

ALEX: Just like a bunch of garbage that was preloaded onto it.

PJ: Like what?

ALEX: Beats Music. Chat On. AT&T Locker. AT&T Family Map. Group Play.

PJ: Most of these things sound like sex stuff. Like Chat On? Group Play? I don’t know about (laughing) AT&T Locker…

ALEX: Samsung Hub. S Memo.

PJ: Ok, but whatever. It has a bunch of crap on it that you’re not gonna use. That doesn’t seem like such a problem.

ALEX: It has an app…called Let Go.

PJ: (laughs) Is that like a pro-suicide hotline?

ALEX: That to me just sounds like—that to me just sounds like, (whispers) “Give up, Alex.” Um, there was like, an extra lock screen on top of the lock screen that I had.

PJ: So you had to unlock your phone twice?

ALEX: Yes, I had to swipe through twice.

PJ: Uh-huh.

ALEX: To say nothing of the fact that the battery’s seven years old, so the phone died every … you couldn’t use the phone for more than an hour and a half. I’ve had it charging all day, it’s at 61%. It was at 74% when you walked into the room ten minutes ago.

PJ: Got it. That is frustrating. Also, I think the other reason the battery may have been dying a lot was because, uh, the phone was doing a lot.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: Not just the things you asked it to do.

ALEX: Ohhhhh godddd…

ALEX: The other thing that I should mention is that—

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: Is on the first episode, we agreed that I would do this for a week.

PJ: Yes.

ALEX: And then it just sort of kept going, and no one said anything, so I just kept using the phone. I think I ended up using it for three weeks.

PJ: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true.

ALEX: My—my wife was furious.

PJ: I wondered if she had any feelings about this thing you agreed to do that violated all of her privacy as well.

ALEX: Not because of the privacy stuff, just because the phone was so unusable that she had a very hard time getting in contact with me.

PJ: I noticed that.

ALEX: Ugh…

PJ: (laughs) Ok. Here’s what it looked like from my end of things. I have—I have this—basically, I go to my web browser, I could go to the—the like, interface for my spyware, and I get this dashboard. Basically, it’s like the same graphic design as like when you do router set up at your house.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Um, but it shows me like, exactly where you are right now on a map, it shows me your battery level, which is always very low.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: Um. But then, I can open it up and I have…a recording of every phone call to or from your phone.

ALEX: Really?!

PJ: Yes.

ALEX: Whoa…wow.

PJ: I’m watching you learn things.

ALEX: Ohh … boy

PJ: Um. All your texts.

ALEX: K.

PJ: All your—uh, MMS. Like so, photos you sent. All the photos you yourself took on the phone. All the videos you took on the phone. Any audio files you made on the phone. The wallpaper for your phone, which you never changed.

And then, what I could do is I could ask the phone to record for a period of anywhere from one minute to I think an hour. And it would just record, like from its microphone, starting then and it would send me the audio file.

ALEX: (sighs)

PJ: And then, I could also ask it to take a picture, and so I have a bunch of pictures from your phone’s camera that I took. Uh—

ALEX: And, would they store on my phone or would they go straight to you?

PJ: No, they’d just send to me. They were for me not for you.

ALEX: Did you get anything good?

PJ: Well, let me tell you about that. So…[long pause], this has been a very frustrating experience for me. Uh, it’s been a very frustrating experience because…you are perhaps like—there’s no one worse I could’ve picked to surveil.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: Can I, yeah, can I—can I play you some of what I picked up on my wiretaps?

ALEX: Yeah, please, now I’m very excited.

PJ: Here’s a conversation with you and Sarah.

[phone ringing]

SARAH O’HOLLA: Hello?

ALEX: Hey, babe.

SARAH: Can you hear me?

ALEX: Yeah, can you hear me?

SARAH: Yeah.

ALEX: I’m on my way home.

SARAH: Are you…? What’s goin’ on?

ALEX: I’m in the train.

SARAH: Ok. When do you think you’ll be home?

ALEX: Probably around 9:30. Maybe, like, 9:45.

SARAH: Ok. I have to—I may have to stop and get cash for Devlin so I wanted to make sure.

ALEX: Ok. So you’re going to be home first?

SARAH: Yeah.

ALEX: Ok. I also got cash for Devlin, but, uh, now I have cash for me.

SARAH: (chuckles)

PJ: That’s a big twist.

ALEX: (laughs) You don’t find that the least bit exciting?

PJ: You also send her so many pictures of just like, if there—if the train’s crowded, you’ll send her a picture of the train being crowded, like a lot. Like I was like, “Why is he taking pictures of all of these people?”

ALEX: There were some pretty serious train problems in New York City…

PJ: Oh I know—

ALEX: —and New Jersey transit.

PJ: —you also talked about them in the morning in the office. Here’s like a—here’s like a pretty crazy conversation you and Tim have:

ALEX: Hey, what’s up?

TIM: Morning dude, how are you?

ALEX: (sighs) I feel like shit. I didn’t get any sleep last night (sighs).

ALEX: I feel very bad.

TIM: Why didn’t you get any sleep?

ALEX: Because I have a two—because I have a two-year-old.

PJ: Can you hear Tim not caring?

ALEX: Yeah, I sure can.

TIM: Um, alright. So um…

PJ: (laughing)


TIM: I’m going to…uh, let’s see. Do you have a list of like, uh, retrack things?

PJ: You spent 20 minutes talking about like minor edits for that week’s episode.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: I now own hours and hours and hours of recordings that are just like this. Like, there’s nothing. There’s like no behind the scenes. Like it’s like a movie, and then they do the director’s commentary, and it’s just the dialogue of the movie again.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: And then like, another way I thought I could get you to reveal something about yourself, it’s just like, if it’s not your thoughts, it’s like where do you go? Like, there’s this feature where it shows me a map, and every single time you move, there’s a dot on the map, so I can see like all your patterns over the course of these three weeks.

Here’s what I see, like when I hit the video and watch you travel. You start at work, and then at the end of that first work day, you get on a train, and I see your dot travel on the train to Manhattan, and then I see you transfer trains and travel to New Jersey, and then you go from the train station in New Jersey to your house. And the next morning, you do the exact same thing, but just backwards.

ALEX: (laughs) This—this makes me feel really bad about my life.

PJ: Really?

ALEX: What did—what did you—just give me a scenario! What did you expect?

PJ: I don’t know, maybe you had a friend I hadn’t heard about. Or a hobby you’d never mentioned. Or like, just… a secret. One secret. Maybe you had one secret. Maybe it wouldn’t be a dirty secret or a good secret, just a secret!

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: There was one point for like one moment, when I was reading all your text messages where, at least like an outside observer, it did look like you were absolutely having an affair.

ALEX: Come on!

PJ: You sent a message to a person—you have, you have an exchange where somebody tells you: “I really want to have our slumber party one day?” Um…and they were like, literally inviting you over that night. And they were like, “Here’s my address, call when you’re here. If you want home-cooked food, there’s home-cooked food.”

ALEX: Huh…

PJ: Is this stressing you out? It like stressed me out to read this.

ALEX: I have no idea what this is about. This is stressing me out!

PJ: It was Sruthi.

ALEX: (laughing)

PJ: Like it was like some late night when it was a winter storm, you didn’t know if you could get back to Jersey.

ALEX: Yes!

PJ: And she was sort of saying like, “Oh, you can crash at our place, but if you want to go home.” But like, it was the thing where it was like, “Oh, if a random person were looking into you, like if like the FBI were looking into you, they’d be like: ‘This is definitely bad.’”

ALEX: Right, right. But … yes! Oh my god. The shorthand we use with each other… oh, that could’ve been very terribly misconstrued!

PJ: Uh, yes. But for me…so, I got so…bored. And I was like, it—it really felt like I was like, “Well, we said we were gonna do this, but I still wanted to find something.” And then it occurred to me like, if this really is like somebody spying on Trump, you know, it’s not just like one person spies on Trump, like if it’s the NSA they have like junior analysts. There are like people whose—”

ALEX: Oh, c’mon!

PJ: Yeeah. Yeah. So I…do you know Emily Kennedy?

ALEX: Yes.

PJ: So Emily Kennedy, for people who don’t know Emily Kennedy, she’s a freelance radio producer, she—we’ve worked with her, but always remotely. And so I was like, Emily, do you want to be like a junior spy analyst of Alex Goldman’s life?

ALEX: (inhales and exhales) Hm. I didn’t—I didn’t explicitly give you permission to do this!

PJ: That’s true.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: So I—I handed it over to Emily and like, Emily came into it differently because like, she—you guys haven’t met in person.

ALEX: No.

PJ: So like, I gave—I handed the controls over to her for a weekend, and basically like she caught the same stuff that I did, like she got a lot of you with your family, talking to Sarah, singing to Harvey. Her main takeaway is just she really, really loves your life.

EMILY KENNEDY: He just seems like such a good dad. Um, you can like see the like heart eyes emoji like appear on your screen.

PJ: (laughs)

EMILY: You know? It’s so cute. Um, but it also like—I don’t know, something about listening to children, on like—on a like a super shoddy recording, laughing, makes me feel like a, like something is imminently going to happen to this like, very nice family, with this like, very nice mom and this very nice dad, who are like, reading “Thomas the Tank Engine” all together with their kid. And you’re like, “Oh fuck,” like, “You guys are going down.”

PJ: (laughs)

EMILY: There’s a serial killer standing outside (laughing).

PJ: What else, uh, jumped out at you, what else was interesting?

EMILY: Oh my god, okay, there was an amazing moment, which I feel like you’ll appreciate.

PJ: Yeah!

EMILY: Um, okay, so he—so this was… let me see, I have like notes on this that I can pull up, too, because it was just so good. So he’s in his house, I think he walks up the stairs, and then he says to his wife, like, “Where’s the shopping list?” It was on the table.

[AUDIO COMES IN HERE]

EMILY: Um, and then, and then it gets really staticky. And then, uh she goes, “Uh, where do you want to—where are you going to the grocery store?” And he says, “I don’t know, do you want me to go to Trader Joe’s, I don’t give a shit.”

[ALEX: Unless you want me to go to Trader Joe’s, I don’t give a shit.]

EMILY: Um, and she goes, “I don’t care where you go.” And then he goes, “Hey, I love you,” which is like this very sweet moment. Um—this is so weird to talk about. Ok. I’m going to keep going.

PJ: (laughs)

EMILY: (laughs) Um, and then, ok, and then he leaves the house which is really exciting because it felt like that was the first like real scene tape that I got, of like—like you could hear him jangling his keys, and you could hear the door shutting, and like, you felt like he was going somewhere.

PJ: ‘Cause it has so little story, it’s like anything that happens feels like a story

is happening.

EMILY: (pauses) Yeah. Exactly! Exactly.

PJ: So, the thing that Emily found, like, the big moment…it happens next.

ALEX: K.

PJ: You get into your car, you turn on, like whatever the pop rap radio station is in Jersey, Hot 97? And then you start driving and after a couple minutes you just start laughing to yourself.

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: It’s…it’s like that kind of laughter. And it like, goes on. It’s like a full minute where you’re just like…just like laughing—

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: —then you’ll stop. And then you’ll start laughing again. And it’s like a song on the radio. It’s like not from the radio.

ALEX: (laughing) I’m gonna tell you something about myself.

PJ: Yeah!

ALEX: This might be my one secret! (laughs)

PJ: Ok.

ALEX: If um…I watch a comedy show. Or re—listen to a comedy podcast, and there’s a moment that I think is particularly funny, if I think about it, while I’m by myself, (laughing) I often start laughing very hard.

PJ: (laughs) And laugh—

ALEX: Do—do you have the recording?

PJ: Yeah. It’s kind of a low quality recording. Um…

ALEX: (whispers) I really wanna hear it.

PJ: Ok. Here, let me play it for you.

[AUDIO RECORDING PLAYS: hip hop music playing and Alex laughing to himself and coughing]

ALEX: WHAT IS THAT?!?!

PJ: (laughing) I don’t know, you’re doing that thing where you laugh so hard, you start coughing, though—

ALEX: (laughs)

PJ: Do you see what I mean about it being like…

ALEX: (laughs) THAT’S SO WEIRD!!! That’s so weird!! Hahaha…WHAT?!!! STILL LAUGHING!!!

PJ: (laughs)

ALEX: (laughs) That’s so weird!! Oh, this is the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to me!

PJ: Really?

ALEX: It’s soo weird!

PJ: Yeah, it is so weird!

ALEX: It’s so weird!

PJ: Yeah!

ALEX: It’s that—that is like my worst nightmare about what you could find out about me.

PJ: Really?

ALEX: That I’m like a creepy self-laugher! In a car by myself! It’s so weird.

PJ: Do you wanna hear something that maybe will make you feel better?

ALEX: Sure.

PJ: Um, do you want to hear yourself singing to your son?

ALEX: Yeah! That’d be great.

PJ: Um…oh, here’s your song with Harvey. Towel song?

HARVEY GOLDMAN: (screaming and laughing) A towel!

ALEX: A towel!

HARVEY: A! A towel! A towel.

ALEX: A towel! A towel! A towel! A towel! A towel! A towel! A towel!

[AUDIO FADES UNDER]

ALEX: This makes me feel happy.

PJ: Because you’re hearing you with your kid?

ALEX: Yeah. I love that guy.

[AUDIO STOPS]

PJ: So that’s your life. You go home, you sing to your kid.

ALEX: Sounds great!

PJ: Then you get in the car…

ALEX: (laughing) And then I laugh to myself!

PJ: All the murders you’re gonna do.

ALEX: (laughs) That is truly so weird.

[MUSIC]

PJ: Coming up after the break: A world of creeps.

[BREAK]

PJ: How you feeling Alex?

ALEX: Uh, you know, a little worse for wear, but pretty good.

PJ: Ok. So I have to tell you something.

ALEX: Alright.

PJ: So, our last conversation was a week ago. In that time, I have learned a lot of things about the tool that I used to spy on you, it’s called FlexiSpy.

ALEX: Mhm.

PJ: All of those things are pretty bad.

ALEX: Great…(laughing) great.

PJ: Yeah. Uh, so I’m gonna tell you the things that I’ve learned which make me feel bad, you can feel bad, also some of them you, personally, I think just like need to know. Ok. So, Joseph Cox, the Motherboard reporter who told me about FlexiSpy in the first place, while we were doing our experiment he was just learning as much as he could about this tool.

ALEX: Ok.

PJ: But Joseph has been focusing on domestic violence. Because it turns out the kind of person who wants to control you by invading your privacy can also be the kind of person who will be violent towards you.

ALEX: Ugh.

PJ: Yeah, it’s bad. He told me about this survey; 75% of domestic violence shelters have come across somebody who’s come in and said, “I found software like this on my phone.”

ALEX: Aw, Jesus Christ. Does Joseph know anything about this company that’s doing this?

PJ: So…he was able to get data on FlexiSpy and this other similar company. They have way more users than I would’ve thought. They have like a hundred…he thinks like 130,000.

ALEX: I would’ve guessed 10.

PJ: I know! Especially because the software’s really expensive. Like, the package I got was $200. I think there’s a cheap one for 50 bucks. But like, this is profitable…it’s international, although the United States is like a lot of their business. Also, he found out that they explicitly are targeting a spouse situation. Like, basically they bought up a bunch of ads on Google, and if you search like, “How do I catch my cheating husband? How do I catch my cheating wife?” you’re likely to see ads for their software.

ALEX: This is like a classic blind spot for Google. If I were Google, those are the kind of ads I would delist. You’re not explicitly breaking any rules, but it’s just…it creates a scenario that facilitates like, violence, and terribleness and like, just…facilitates like human misery.

PJ: The other thing is…it is illegal. So like, this is a point that somehow just flew over my stupid head, you’re not allowed to wiretap people.

ALEX: So how can they sell this stuff?

PJ: Because they’re not located in the US, like the companies that do this for the most part. They can say, if they’re smart, like, “Well, we don’t know that people are going to use it for that.” But what makes FlexiSpy, the company that I used, like particularly bad, is they’re telling people to use it for this. Like, they’re not even winking.

So, the big thing that happened, uh, between when we started this, and when I spoke to Joe yesterday.

ALEX: Can I take a guess?

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: Were they hacked?

PJ: Yes.

ALEX: Aw, you’ve gotta be kidding me. FlexiSpy was hacked?

PJ: Yes.

ALEX: And what does that mean? What have they gotten?

PJ: (sighs) Ok. So they were hacked. He has access to the database of hacked stuff.

ALEX: Uh-huh…

PJ: He searched and you are not in it.

ALEX: That’s a relief. Um.

PJ: Did that feel genuinely worrisome?

ALEX: Yeah!

PJ: So actually, the hacker who hacked Flexispy is a hacker named Leopard Boy. And he did it, like as an act of protest. Like he was like, “What they’re doing is wrong and gross and I don’t like it.” Um. He’d actually—he read Joseph’s article and got mad that way. And then he sent the material to Joseph.

ALEX: Did the contents that were sent to Joseph also include the names of the customers?

PJ: Yeah. They got this huge list of FlexiSpy’s customers. So all these people who were spying on people, they now are kind of exposed.

ALEX: Ok. You said my name wasn’t in the list. Was your name in the list?

PJ: My name was not in the list.

ALEX: Ok.

PJ: But Joe wanted to talk to some of the people who were on the list, like he wanted to just know who they were, and so he started emailing them.

JOSEPH: And they were just totally normal people. Uh, like a teacher in Washington DC, um, a dog trainer in Georgia, someone who runs a sunglasses distributor in New York.

PJ: And they’re just—they’re not embarrassed about what they’ve done. Like there was this guy who had used it to spy on his wife.

JOSEPH: He said it was the best money he ever spent.

PJ: Uh…sure…

JOSEPH: Uh, yeah. Well, yeah, maybe spend your money on more things. But, um…and then there was another one that I think was the most shocking. It was a simp—a very simple short email that simply said: “It’s normal.” And I never heard from him again. That was it.

PJ: It’s normal…meaning it’s normal to spy on people?

JOSEPH: It’s normal to use this software, this malware. Yeah.

PJ: Joseph also heard from a second hacker. A person that hacked another company, that’s basically the same as FlexiSpy, and they got like actual material—like, all the things that like, if I spied on you and I collected like photos, video, audio—they had that stuff and they sent that stuff to Joseph.

ALEX: Wow.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: The fact that was not better secured.

PJ: I know.

ALEX: Not great.

PJ: Yeah. Uh, the hacker agreed with you.

JOSEPH: He was like, “I don’t think people should be able to, um, gain access to this material.” So after he broke into the company, he…wiped all of their servers.

PJ: He deleted it from the company itself?

JOSEPH: Yeah.

PJ: That is like the end of Fight Club or something.

JOSEPH: Yeah. He kind of set it on fire. And the FlexiSpy hacker did largely the same thing.

PJ: Isn’t that awesome?

ALEX: It is awesome, I—I strongly suspect that they probably had backups.

PJ: Yes. I’m sure that they did.

ALEX: But…it was a nice move!

PJ: Yeah…(sigh). Anyway…I just feel like my whole takeaway from this is…I feel like we were using like a toy, and I’m like, “Oh this is not a toy. This is terrible.” And it’s not like it didn’t occur to me that this might not be the best thing, but like—

ALEX: It’s like you brought an AK-47 to hunt squirrels.

PJ: Yes! Yes. Yes. And like, I do…like I do genuinely feel… I have this feeling like I exposed you to more risk that I intended to, and it feels bad. And I’m s—like, genuinely sorry for that.

ALEX: Well, thank you. Um…(laughs) thank you. Uh, I thought the first half of this show was like so much about just my glaring personality flaws, and like, the incredible milquetoastiness of my life. Um, it turns out that it was about like, um, your incredible lack of thoughtfulness, and my blind willingness to trust you in any circumstance. You lead me down so many primrose paths. You don’t give a shit.

PJ: Uh…?

ALEX: I guess you give a shit, you apologized!

PJ: Yeah. I guess I give that much of a shit.

ALEX: (laughs)

[MUSIC]

PJ: One last thing. If you’re worried that you may have been targeted with FlexiSpy, there’s a tool you can use, it’s called FlexiKiller. It’s made by a group called Security Without Borders. It can’t scan your phone, but it can scan your computer to see if the software’s on it. It can identify it, it can delete it.

Also, if you’re experiencing domestic violence, um, a good phone number is the National Domestic Violence Hotline. It’s 1-800-799-7233. They’re there 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

[CREDITS]

Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos, and Damiano Marchetti. Production assistance from Sherina Ong. We’re edited by Tim Howard and Jorge Just. We’re mixed by Rick Kwan.

Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Matt Lieber is a balmy summer night, just hangin’ out on the back porch. Doin’ whatever.

We’re looking for a Fall Intern. If you’re interested in applying, you can do so on our website. The deadline for applications is 9 am on May 29th.

You can visit our website at replyall.limo and you can find more episodes of the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you in two weeks.

[AD BREAK]

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[BREAKMASTER CYLINDER STINGER]

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