There are many pressing issues in cybersecurity, ranging from massive multimillion dollar ransomware attacks to vigilante amateur hackers aiding in war – but there is a quieter and pervasive cybersecurity problem that is frequently overlooked known as Stalkerware.
Stalkerware is software, usually an app, which can be downloaded onto the victim’s phone. Once installed, it tracks the victim’s every digital move – their location, their call logs, some even track each and every character typed – from Google searches to emails and texts. These apps then relay all of this information back to the individual who installed it in the first place – often an abusive current or past intimate partner.
Stalkerware often masquerades as parental monitoring software within the app store. Others actively advertise their ability to remain hidden, boasting features like an app icon which makes the application look like a calculator app or calendar app. Other apps have legitimate purposes but can be used as stalkerware. Programs like Life360, which allows you to see the location of family members based on phone location, is one such example.
Per a study by NPR, 85% of domestic violence shelters surveyed said they were working with survivors who had been tracked via GPS by their abusers. A study by Kaspersky from 2020 estimates around 60,000 people are the victims of stalkerware each year. This issue is clearly not going away any time soon.
The legal status of these applications remains grey. Many applications have legitimate purposes – like Life360 – and are unlikely to face legal challenges. Applications which are more blatantly and exclusively used as stalkerware have faced some legal challenges in the past couple years.
For example, in December of 2021, the FTC barred the CEO of Support King LLC, the operator of SpyFone.com from selling, promoting, advertising or offering any sort of surveillance application. SpyFone was a popular stalkerware provider.
There are a variety of things you can do to make sure your phone is not running stalkerware. Some basic checks include the following:
- Monitor what apps are installed on your device. If you encounter something that does not appear to be familiar, investigate further.
- If you use an Android phone, check the setting which allows apps to be downloaded outside the official Google Play Store. The Play Store officially does not allow stalkerware, and many apps are installed outside of the Play Store ecosystem as a result. If this setting is enabled and you didn’t enable it, that could be a cause for concern.
- Stalkerware runs in the background constantly and can impact performance and battery life. If you notice a sudden decrease in either performance or battery life, investigate further.
The tips above can certainly help you detect already installed stalkerware, but reliable mobile antivirus and keeping your phone password protected can both be particularly effective at preventing the software from being installed in the first place. Stalkerware will continue to be a pervasive problem for the foreseeable future and due to its existence in a legal grey-zone, it’s important to keep an eye on your own device.