The rise of stalkerware in abusive relationships
Would you sooner leave a friend unattended in your home for an hour or give them ten minutes alone with your smartphone?
We have understandably become increasingly protective of the device that stores every aspect of our lives. Every message and swipe are stored. Underneath its shiny exterior is a microphone and camera capable of hearing and seeing everything we do. Our digital footprint can even be tracked in the physical world via GPS.
In the wrong hands, this vast amount of data would enable someone to monitor your every movement. Over the last few years, controlling partners have been secretly installing powerful surveillance tools on their partner's phone while they slept. These creepy apps are commonly referred to as 'stalkerware' or 'spouseware.'
Jealous spouses or even ex-partners are unlocking stalker-like capabilities that track every phone call, message, and location. The apps are readily available online and for the most part, surveillance apps are installed without the victim's permission. Some even allow them to record what is happening on the screen.
Identifying the early signs of stalkerware
Early signs your phone is infected could begin by noticing that there is a longer response time or slight lag when typing a message to a friend. It’s also worth monitoring the data usage on your device over the last 12 months. Has the usage pattern changed or spiked unexpectedly?
If an app is continuously monitoring everything on your device, it might feel a little warmer, and the battery might be draining faster than usual. Away from your phone, is someone in your life acting suspiciously? Do they seem to know a little too much about your location or reveal themes from private conversations? If something feels a little off, it probably is.
To raise awareness, the Coalition Against Stalkerware has also produced an explanatory video to help both victims and survivors identify the warning signs of stalkerware.
There has been a 35% rise in people discovering stalkerware on their phones. Security firm Kaspersky also revealed that over 58,000 users had detected stalkerware on their devices. The bad news is that surveillance software can be difficult to detect. A great place to start is a spring clean of the apps on your phone. If you aren't using an app, it's time to delete it.
If you suspect your email or messaging apps are being monitored, consider creating additional accounts on a safer computer or device outside your home. But never log in to them on the device that you suspect has been compromised.
There are a variety of anti-malware solutions on the market that will scan your device. Erasing and resetting your device is also a great way to remove stalkerware. But remember, if your every move is being monitored in a deteriorating relationship, deleting the software will alert your abuser and cause them to react in a way that could put you in danger.
Always ensure your safety by approaching a support group or law enforcement if you are concerned.
Awareness that the smartphone in your pocket can track every message and every step you take should be more than enough to convince you to secure your device. Ensure that you have unique passwords for each account and, where possible, enable two-factor authentication which will alert you if anyone attempts to access your social media accounts.
COVID-induced lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have increased access to personal devices. If security software is not installed, people within your household could easily add stalkerware without your knowledge. For example, it's not uncommon for a controlling partner to unlock their spouse's phone using their biometric authentication while they sleep.
Although it's a much less convenient method of unlocking your phone or tablet, secret PINs and passwords are much more secure. If you have an increasing suspicion that something isn't right. Always trust your instincts and act accordingly.
The many sides of digital stalking
Traditionally, users have defended themselves from threat actors, hackers, and online attackers that they do not know. But there is increasing evidence that suggests we need to be warier of friends, jealous spouses, and ex-partners.
However, it's important to remember that digital stalking stretches far beyond couples.
Some solutions are sold to parents in the guise of monitoring their children's online behaviour to protect them from the dark side of the web. Employers also use mobile device management and surveillance apps across corporate devices to ensure employees use their work phones to do their job rather than slacking on social media or compromising company data.
Stalkerware enables anyone within your circle of trust to control and suppress your individual liberty and freedom. Remember that your smartphone tracks your physical location, browsing history, instant messages, and phone calls. It's time to protect that personal data by locking down your device and bolster your security.