Magic Jack - Good or Evil?

Category: Gadgets , Telephony

Perhaps you've read reports about spyware in Magic Jack, or heard claims that the company sells your private information to third parties. Here's the scoop...

Is Magic Jack Evil?

Is Magic Jack Spyware?

After writing about the Magic Jack device last month (see Magic Jack Phone Service), I've received a flood of comments. Most people who wrote seem to love this gadget, which connects your phone to your computer and provides unlimited phone service for $20 a year. Others were vocal in their dislike for the product. I can understand that some people will have voice quality problems, due to under-powered hardware, a flaky internet connection, or software conflicts. But after a few people wrote in claiming that Magic Jack contains spyware or keyloggers and that the company may be selling private information to the highest bidder, I decided to investigate for myself.

The source of most these repeated allegations seems to be this article Real Problems With Magic Jack from the BroadBand Nation blog. The author makes a lot of dubious claims that stem from his reading of the MagicJack Terms of Service (TOS) document, among them that Magic Jack is spyware, and that the company reserves the right to snoop through your files and emails -- even sell your private information to third parties. Here are some examples, in bold text below.

>BBN: In the TOS you agree that everything in your computer is fair game for them to know about, all web sites, email, and numbers called are their info.

But that's just wrong. The TOS says "Your registration data and certain other information about you are subject to this Terms of Service." Nowhere does it say that MJ software will snoop around on your hard drive, looking through your personal documents, reading your emails, or checking out what websites you've visited. And there's no evidence this is happening. Your "registration data" is your name, address, and other info you provided when you signed up. It's a big stretch of the imagination to assume that the "certain other information" includes "everything in your computer."

It's important to remember that ANY piece of software on your computer has the ability to access ANY file on that system. Your web browser, word processor, email program, even your anti-virus program -- they all have carte blanche to read, write, change, delete or transmit anything on your computer. But that doesn't mean they will.

It is true that the MJ TOS says they "may analyze the phone numbers you call and your registration information in order to improve the relevance of the ads." Okay, so they know your name, address, and who you call. I don't think most people would be concerned about that, because they're NOT listening to your conversations -- they're just looking at the numbers you dial. Let's make up a scenario... Suppose MJ determines that you are calling an auto insurance company, what's the worst that could happen? An ad for another insurance company might pop up on your screen? Horrors! Oh, and by the way... do you think that maybe your phone company ALSO knows who you are and who you call? Of course they do, and that doesn't make them evil.

>BBN: You agree to have all of your information resold to third parties.

Wrong again. The MJ TOS clearly states: "We do not provide any personal information to our advertisers or third parties." This is either an oversight or an intentionally inflammatory remark on the part of the author.

>BBN: Their TOS spells out their intent -- the intent to feed context sensitive advertising, which requires manipulation of information from your brain through their software into their processors.

Yes, the MJ software MAY serve up context sensitive ads. And hooray for context-sensitive ads! If their business model includes advertising, wouldn't you rather that the ads be relevant? Google does that with Gmail. If you're reading an email from your friend in Miami about her dog, you might see ads for dog food, or Miami hotels on the side of the screen. Yahoo and Microsoft do the same type of things when serving up ads based on the content of a web page.

This does not mean that your personal information has been compromised or shared with any third party. It means only that a computer examined the information on the screen, and served up ads that were related to the content. Oh, and from what I've heard, they aren't even serving ads yet. One friend who loves his Magic Jack told me he's not seeing any ads from Magic Jack, and I've read the same comments from other users.

>BBN: You agree that magicJack may access, preserve and disclose your account information if required to do so by law

Okay... that's pretty standard. Any company you do business with will disclose your account info when given a court order to do so.

>BBN: There is no Un-install for this program. Even if you stop using it, it gathers your information.

It's true that there is no uninstall for the MJ software, and that's not a good thing. But if you stop using the MJ software, you're not making or receiving any phone calls with it. So what could it be gathering? I agree that MJ should have an uninstall, and that not having one is a bad practice. But we can't conclude that if you stop using the software, it will silenty track your every move and report back to the mothership. BTW, if you want to stop using the device, here are some good Magic Jack uninstall instructions.

>BBN: MajicJack Spyware slows down your computer even when you are not using MagicJack.

Spyware?? Again, this is either wild speculation, or is meant to be inflammatory. There's just no evidence that MJ contains any spyware, or that it is snooping around your hard drive and sending your personal information to anyone.

>BBN: Then there is the ability of MJ to modify their software at any time, without the common user's ability to stop it, and that revision could include the spyware coding.

Oh, I see. The automatic update feature, instead of providing "updates to the Software, bug fixes, and patches" (as stated in the TOS), could actually be downloading Nasty Spyware on your system, possibly even giving Evil Hackers and Russian Spies back door access to view your family photos. Riiiight.

News Flash: Your operating system, web browser, and anti-virus programs ALL have auto-update features. This is a good thing, because if you leave this task up to the users, most will probably not bother to download and install updates and security patches.

>BBN: There is no written warranty on the box. It breaks, you buy another to maintain your service.

I've heard from several people who told me that when they had trouble with the MJ unit, the company replaced it for free.

Computer must be left on to make or receive calls.

Yup, it's a USB device. And they tend not to work when they have no power.

>BBN: Magic Jack is owned and run by YMAX. They are not a stand alone VoIP provider.

Gasp! My research shows that YMAX Communications Corporation is "a modern phone company with the largest competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) network in the US" and that the founder formerly ran Talk America, a long distance company with four million customers. So that's bad?

What's the Verdict on Magic Jack?

I'm really not trying to defend Magic Jack here. I don't own one, and I have no financial stake in the company. But when I see a product maligned on the basis of speculation, or a deliberate attempt to misinform, that does upset me.

It's true that the Magic Jack terms of service are a little vague on some points, and that the EULA (end-user license agreement) contains that standard legalese found in so many of these documents, which attempts to absolve the company of all blame, no matter what happens. But it's just not fair to extrapolate beyond the facts, and make unfounded claims that the company is doing evil or trampling on the privacy of their customers.

Here's what I believe... based on my own research, my personal interaction with Magic Jack users, and my reading of the Terms of Service:

  • There is no evidence that the Magic Jack software is snooping around on hard drives, looking through documents, emails, or web browsing history.
  • There is no evidence that the Magic Jack software is (or contains) spyware. Neither do I give any credibility to the notion that the auto-update feature might someday dump spyware on the computers of MJ users.
  • There is no evidence that the company selling Magic Jack has ever sold private information to third parties, and no indication in the TOS that they might. In fact, they explicitly state that they will not.

Of course, I could be wrong. Your comments are welcome...

 
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Posted by on 11 Feb 2009


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Most recent comments on "Magic Jack - Good or Evil?"

(See all 93 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Rob
27 Feb 2010

Bob,

I was reading your article with enthusiasm until you said the following gaffe:

It's important to remember that ANY piece of software on your computer has the ability to access ANY file on that system. Your web browser, word processor, email program, even your anti-virus program -- they all have carte blanche to read, write, change, delete or transmit anything on your computer. But that doesn't mean they will.

Unless you assume we are all running Windows 98, a program cannot access ANY file on the system. Also, especially in Windows Vista, Seven, and Mac OS X, various pieces of software have various levels of access to your computer. This is the most fundamental aspect of OS security today and if you are a technical blogger, you should at least learn the basics. You could correct the statement to read: "any file in your user folders".

EDITOR'S NOTE: Not so sure about that. If a user is logged in as an Admin level user, then that changes everything, right? Also, viruses can certainly wreak whatever havoc they want, in any folder...


Posted by:

larry
04 Mar 2010

Donnie

A moron? Perhaps for buying Magicjack.
Also for spending too much time writing system internal apps such as drivers and not spending my time on the beach.

No voip program needs to look at other program's data. Searching codeproject or other development sites will show both how to hook and what hooks are all about. Much like a locksmith has ways to open locks, he should not be opening all the houses on the block to see what is inside. MJ does look inside!

Larry


Posted by:

PK
27 Apr 2010

For anyone interested in using it for a fax line, it may or may not work. I've read countless posts on both sides of the fence. It's not working for me...tried screwing with it for a couple of hours and the most I get is the first inch of the page when sending, then the MagicJack hangs up on it's own for some reason. Won't receive at all. Tried it with the built in fax-modem and a real fax machine. I don't really fax that much so it's not a big deal.

Voice quality was never a problem, although I haven't really used it extensively since last year. Audio cuts out once in awhile but don't remember a substantial number dropped calls. They do disconnect you if you stay on a call for 2 or 3 hours (can't remember which) but you can just re-dial after a minute or so. I have heard of people being required to pay for excessive usage (over a couple thousand minutes).

I don't really know to what extent they spy on users and the software seems questionable at best (12+ MB just for their cheezy dialer software). If you're concerned about privacy, consider putting it on it's own computer (build a thin client to save power & money) and then you have nothing to worry about, other than perhaps the hassle of getting it to work on the thin client. I still prefer an analog line myself, but it also costs me a bit more than if I were to use the MagicJack exclusively.


Posted by:

Simon
17 May 2010

This article is fairly accurate. One of the only things that annoys me about the magic jack software is its habit of loading several processes just to check the status of the magic jack device. It enters itself deep within the registry where most users wouldn't think to look, and sets itself to start when windows starts. Every time I remove it from the registry and restart the software, it puts its registry entries right back where they were. And it actually does slow down the computer a little, assuming the processor is slow, even when the device isn't plugged in. Windows takes at least twice as long to load up all of its processes thanks to magic jack, even on the best machines. And no, there is no uninstaller. It also installs to the documents and settings folder, not program files. Most people wouldn't think to look for it there.
Also, there doesn't seem to be a fair usage limit. Last time I read the terms of service, they had some nonsense about 20 times the normal usage. Ok, so how the hell are we supposed to know what everyone else and their grandmother uses per day? I've also heard of several people having their service cut off without notice because they went over this undefined usage limit, and being forced to pay not only for a new plan, but for a new magic jack in order to have the service restored. That, in my opinion, is just disgustingly poor practices on their part.

I do have to give them one thing though. Their support is generally good, even though it is only web-based. They give the user everything they promise, even though those promises aren't always clearly spelled out. So if the user reads through all the legalese and other such things that comprise the terms of service, they will get exactly what they are expecting. Personally, I don't use mine very often, so I haven't been cut off at all. I think I will renew mine in June since it's fairly cheap, and it's useful to have around, especially with cell phone rates as bad as they are in Canada. The best combination you can possibly get is a small netbook, a mobile internet air card and a magic jack.


Posted by:

patty
18 May 2010

I don't have time to reply to this right now but, I must say. This annoys me. I was on my laptop the other day and magicjack was unplugged and plugged in my main computer. I was on youtube and when the video stopped I heard someone saying something. I turned it up and heard okay to get your data now. I reached up and diconnect internet. I heard, no don't go off, no don't go. I looked up who was excessing my data, and it was magicjack. Mcafee had been blocking attempts but the got threw from another IP address. Hacking threw magicjacks IP maybe. Or just magicjack doing what people are saying. I could here him! He was deep into my system. I wonder if they get into web cams. I am canceling my subscribtion and deleting everything I can. Then i am going to run over my magicjack with a lawn mower. I bet they know I am saying this.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Wow. You're either a very talented fiction writer, a person with an axe to grind, or you have problems that no amount of tech support can solve.


Posted by:

ZeroFossilFuel
30 May 2010

Bob,

Thank you for injecting some common sense into the spyware debate surrounding Magic Jack. I usually look at simple to-good-to-be-true devices like this with a very skeptical eye. As a privacy lobbyist myself I know there are so many ways in which many unknowingly give up their information that, if they fully understood the extent to which they do so, it would make them head for the hills, crawl up in a cave and live in seclusion the rest of their miserable lives. And you're right - SnoopFree is an oxymoron on so many levels it's comical.

"Common sense" is also an oxymoron because it's just not that common anymore. But that's what's prescribed here. The suggestion for the paranoid to get a cheap XP machine and dedicate it to MJ service exclusively is probably the best one out there.

I have actually had pretty good service with mine and, unlike many, did not set my customer service expectations unrealistically high for the only $20/yr price tag. They have to cut cost somewhere and labor, being the greatest cost of running ANY business, is where they chose to cut. From the business perspective, that was a good move. It's a good value, even if we CAN hear the East Indian accent through the chat text window. :-P

That said, I must also point out that I was not pleased with the intrusive pop-up windows I encountered upon entering your web site to read your MJ common sense. You may want to think about practicing what you preach, else be labeled as clergy, "Do as I say, not as I do."

IMHO
Z


Posted by:

Jason
13 Jun 2010

Bob, can you please explain the challenge used to authenticate the user using the SIP protocol on the magic jack? Could packet sniffing outside the computer identify this info or only a trojan running locally possibly?


Posted by:

joe
24 Sep 2010

I do believe you work or them... spyware is on it or you have given permission for them to spy in the future.. not sell what they find? I don't want to give them permission to advertise to me at all much less being able to "target" me because of my phone calls! You are an idiot if you can't see ...


Posted by:

Martin
26 Sep 2010

I bought a MagicJack last week. Interesting coincidence, I immediately got several problems on my laptop, one of which being the following message that pops up every time on a reboot: Generic Host Process for Win32 Services has encountered a problem and needs to close. Also, I now ALWAYS get redirected when I click on a specific web site using Google or Yahoo search engines. Ironically, I get often redirected to some unknown Anti-virus web page. I have no proof that all this is caused by MagicJack, but the coincidence is overwhelming because all this cr*** started on the same day I installed MagicJack.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm not an apologist for Magic Jack, but I'm sure this was a coincidence. It just doesn't make sense for any well-known company to include malware in their product. If proven, it would destroy their reputation and credibility. I suggest you try MBAM to rememdy the issue. See http://askbobrankin.com/malwarebytes_antimalware.html


Posted by:

mike
21 Dec 2010

amazing the paranoia that people have.
some people just have nothing better to do but to start a blog about a product that they probably tried and did not like.i could be wrong about that but imho, its over blown crap. thx bob for enlightening us.
good article thank you


Posted by:

Michelle
05 Mar 2011

I have been considering magicjack and have not been happy with what I have been reading.

The magicjack website (looks/feels like a hardsell scam imo) and the lack of a uninstall button for their software (odd for any software) has seriously put me off this product/company. It just doesn't feel right to me.

Although it doesn't appear to have been proven I wouldn't be surprised if there was a limited amount of spyware involved.

What respectable company leaves off the software uninstall option.

I am really quite disappointed.


Posted by:

Stan
28 Mar 2011

Michelle: MJ adds an entry to the Windows Control Panel Add/Remove Programs section so it could be uninstalled from there. MJ also makes available an uninstall app on its website: search the FAQ or "uninstall".

If you think the MJ website is bad I invite you to check out x10.com!


Posted by:

tim
06 Apr 2011

i don't know about spyware but magic jack is a scam.
you prepay for a year, they waited til i filled out my contacts list and then discontinued me. no way to even access my messages, and they had full control of my account, no telling what they were doing with my 'active' inactive account.
good luck getting a human being to make any of this right, they just shit on the user, soon they'll probably change the name so as to screw the same people twice.
also, NEVER TRUST A COMPANY WHO HAS BOUGHT THIER OWN sucks.com site so as to hide criticism.
if you type in magicjacksucks.com all you get is just an ad for their 'award winning' service.
its not an honest product/outfit.


Posted by:

Ed
11 May 2011

I don't know what the fuzz is about; Facebook is probably worse and the world loves it. I have owned one of these gadgets for almost two years now. I have just spent one month is South America calling all over the USA and Canada daily, and it has become a staple in my gadgets to carry. It's a lot cheaper than Skype-to-landline and does a fine job.


Posted by:

ron
09 Jan 2012

Bought a M.J. about 1 yr. ago. Used for few months. Worked inconsistently. My phone number from M.J. was long distance with my local phone commpany. So local people had to call long distance to call me. Also, found you could not call with or without calling long distance. The M.J. customer service could not solve the problem saying this was due to the phone company (Windstream). It became useless. The customer service is the pits and not very knowledgeable about the device and there is no way to contact them except through the M.J. website.


Posted by:

Norm Roder
19 Feb 2012

MagicJack is something I have been using for a few years with some bad audio at times. I have received and tested the plus and want to return it but their customer service does NOT exist. I tried the chat and after several trys and waiting for as much as 40 minutes I cannot get any reply. I could recommend them if they did not have that irritating audio on their site and replace it with a customer service phone number.


Posted by:

Jason
29 Aug 2012

Magic Jack company sells or gives away your email address registered with them. This isn't a hypothesis, it is a fact. I'm a system administrator who runs our own email server. Because of this, we can create an unlimited number of email addresses. The advantage to this is that anytime a company requests your email address, you can create a very unique address tailored just to that company. Then if/when you get SPAM, all you need to do is look at who it was sent/addressed to to determine which company released some/all of your personal information. This process caught AmeriTrade's security breach which eventually forced AmeriTrade to send out a notification to all AmeriTrade clients telling them of this breach in security. This occurred some 4 years ago (so those users with AmeriTrade accounts will remember this). Anyway, it only took a few weeks before I got SPAM on the Magic Jack's unique email address registered with them. Just to make sure it wasn't a fluke, a new email address was registered with them that in part used a sequence of letters, numbers and characters (from KeePass Password Safe) making it utterly impossible for it to be another fluke. Again, within a few weeks the new email address was getting SPAM on it. I contacted Magic Jack to inform them about this issue and they denied it was even possible. They were extremely uncooperative and didn't even take the time to listen to why I 100% knew this issue was occurring. I immediately uninstalled the Magic Jack software (yes, there is an uninstaller but it isn't publicly available - the Magic Jack company uses it for clients that are having problems with the software in order to attempt a 'clean' reinstall). The uninstaller isn't a complete uninstaller though and still some manual deletion of files and registry entries was necessary for a complete removal. Because of this we will never, ever use the Magic Jack system again.

Jason


Posted by:

Adrian
15 Oct 2012

Jason (the so called system administrator) lol. I started out as a sys admin for my company yrs ago before moving on up. One of my duties while in that role was maintaining an email server as well. I assure you that, if you were to do your duties, you might find that your email server is an open relay or has been compromised on some level which is exposing email addresses to be harvested or mass emailed. Although, I do definitely applaud your efforts of email tracking, I do the same thing with gmail accounts for various online purchases/subscriptions. LOVE all the "technical" comments on here from obviously non-technical people. I think I even read the word "registry" word being slung around a couple times...lol..


Posted by:

Moira66
28 Apr 2013

All of you that are paranoid enough to think magicjack is spying on you are idiots. I'm a so called "conspiracy nut" and am well aware of how to track others tracking me. It does nothing of the sort. Please, those who are saying this, get back on your meds! rofl!


Posted by:

Cody
19 Jan 2014

Patty your are one sick Puppy, what kind of dope are you using?


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