Stalkerware: A Dangerous Form of Digital Abuse
Digital abuse is on the rise.
From cyberstalking to online dating scams, we’re seeing nearly every new technology weaponized by abusers.
One of the most potentially dangerous technologies is stalkerware.
Stalkerware includes software programs, apps, or infected devices that enable someone to spy on another person’s life secretly.
Over the years, stalkerware has only become easier to buy and install.
Research by Wesnet found tracking and monitoring of women by perpetrators had risen 244% between 2015 and 2020 -- the most common abuse experienced was stalking, often by technological means.
Stalkerware apps run hidden in the background, without the knowledge of the affected person. The person has no idea these apps are on their device and never consented to be monitored in this way.
Stalkerware can share the following information with the perpetrator:
- Exact location
- Call history
- Voice calls (the actual recording of a conversation)
- Web searches
- Text message history
- Photos / Videos
Here are some examples of stalkerware app features:
Keyboard capturing or keystroke logging are software applications that can be used to record the keys struck on a keyboard or any electronic device. This enables an abuser to monitor web searches, texts/instant messages, phone numbers you dial, passwords, and anything else you type on the device.
Location tracking will get the exact geolocation of the victim which can be used to stalk and harass the victim.
Recording of phone calls can also be enabled by stalkerware. There have been instances of an abusive partner enabling this option using a child’s device and monitoring the victim’s calls and activities. This poses a serious threat to how to deal with data privacy after being divorced/separated from an abusive spouse.
Stalkerware software can even have access to photos and videos -- even if stored on the cloud.
How does someone install stalkerware on a device?
To install stalkerware on a device, the perpetrator needs access to the device. It does not take long to install this type of software. It takes even less time for someone to input their fingerprint or face ID on your phone so they can access your device again and install stalkerware at a later time. You should always be cautious when allowing someone to use your device and never leave them alone.
WARNING: Always be cautious when someone gives you a mobile device - even if it appears to be brand new. Stalkerware can be pre-installed on devices and re-boxed to look brand new.
How to find signs of stalkerware on your devices
The following are the main indicators of the presence of stalkerware software on your device.
- Your battery drains faster than usual. The reason behind this will be the stalkerware apps that run constantly in the background eating up your battery.
- Anti-virus software like Kaspersky alert you to potentially dangerous apps
- Check permissions of installed apps. You may discover apps you never installed on your device.
- Check browser and app history. You may find searches you did not perform for unknown apps.
Here is a deep dive into how to check your devices for stalkerware.
What to do if you find stalkerware on your devices
If you do find stalkerware installed on your device, do the following:
- DO NOT uninstall it immediately - this could notify the perpetrator
- Tell someone you know - using a different device - ideally one you don't own like a friend's phone or a computer at work
- Call a national hotline - again, using a different device. Many are familiar with stalkerware type applications
- Create a personalized safety plan - hotlines can help you do this.
- Reach out ot authorities - they can help you safely leave a situation, document the incident, and even press charges
- Factory reset the device - if you are in a safe space and have talked to experts about the stalkerware on your device and feel safe in doing so, you can factory reset the device which should remove the software.
- Purchase a new device - while this is an example of victim blaming, it’s also an ultimate safety measure
Know that you are not alone if you discover stalkerware on your device. It is potentially very dangerous and is a form of abuse and control.
The Coalition Against Stalkerware has additional resources and tools if you are interested in learning more or think your device may be compromised.
You can also call the national cybersecurity alliance at 1-800-799-7233.