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Cyberstalking likely to increase in Post-Roe America


By using stalkerware, an abuser violates user privacy and can put their own and the victim’s personal information at risk. However, many find it acceptable to stalk a suspectedly cheating partner.

In October 2021, popular TikTok user Ali Nassar Abulaban, also known as jinnkid, used stalkerware to listen to conversations between his wife and a friend after she broke up with him. He then returned to the apartment and fatally shot both of them.

While the story made headlines, showing the harm that stalking apps can cause, the number of such attacks decreased by around 39% in 2021, according to Kaspersky’s recent report. The US remains to be one of the most affected countries, together with Russia and Brazil.

Kaspersky also conducted a global survey which found that at least 30% of people believe it is acceptable to stalk a partner, at least under certain circumstances.

Experts expect cyberstalking to increase once again with the overruling of Roe v Wade.

What is stalkerware?

Unlike other types of malware, stalkerware is publicly available and usually free to use.

It is used to monitor other people’s phones, including location, messages, browsing history, and obtain other private information, usually without their knowledge.

While some of these apps disguise and advertise themselves as tools for monitoring your own children, some of such apps do not even conceal their main purpose. For instance, TheTruthSpy is one of the popular stalkerware apps that markets itself as a tool for spying.

“To get to the truth, you need to spy on your spouse and secretly read the text messages. You can check all their messages to know who they are talking to and what they are texting,” the app’s blog stated.

stalkerware advertisement

The same stalkerware software received backlash for exposing the data of victims who had the malware installed. This includes images of children and infants, which violates the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which obligates to protect data of those under 13 years old.

Cybernews talked to a few industry experts about stalkerware activity, what could have caused the decrease, and if the threat is still real.

Why the fall

One of the reasons for the decline in attacks could have been the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I suspect the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns might have impacted the 2021 survey results since people were much less mobile,” David Adkins, the lecturer and the undergraduate director of Cybersecurity at the University of Albany, told Cybernews.

Adkins believes that another reason stalkerware usage decreased during last year is that “smartphone users have become more aware of the tracking capability and are taking steps to limit this mode of surveillance.”

Apple or Google – which is safer?

Back in 2020, Google took measures to prevent such attacks by updating its Enabling Dishonest Behavior policy and restricting the advertising of spyware apps. However, surveillance apps for monitoring your underage kids and private investigation services were excluded from the restrictions. Some stalkerware companies used the exceptions as a disguise to get around the rules.

Meanwhile, Apple is often considered a safer operating system due to a stricter app examination process and prohibition of sideloading. During his speech at the Global Privacy Summit 2022, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, said that “It [sideloading] would also potentially give bad actors a way around the comprehensive security protections we put in place, putting them in direct contact with our users.”

Yet, Apple devices are not threat-proof either. Security Consultant at F-Secure Laura Kankaala told Cybernews that “For iOS, it seems that a lot of stalkerware is based on access to iCloud. You would need knowledge of their victims' iCloud credentials to be able to install that [stalkerware].”

Of course, manufacturers are trying to make devices more resistant to stalkerware, but that comes with gaps.

“Many of the protections that are being introduced into new operating systems are not backward compatible with the previous generation of devices,” Michael Covington, VP of Product and Strategy at Apple device management company Jamf, told Cybernews.

Covington also says that certain technological advancements, such as TouchID and FaceID, make it harder for stalkers to access victims’ devices: “As passwords are phased out, and auto-lock features are enabled by default, stalkers have less opportunity to install spy software on a victim’s device.”

But this does not mark the end of the stalkerware era – threat actors are constantly looking for new off-device tactics once the old ones become inefficient. “Apple’s AirTags, for example, have been reportedly used by criminals to track both individuals and high-value targets to facilitate stalking and theft,” he stated.

Not a win

Kaspersky revealed that while the number of victims is decreasing, the attitude surrounding the topic is concerning. According to their global survey, 64% of respondents say they would stalk their partner if they believed they were unfaithful, 63% would do it for their safety, and 50% would if their partner was involved in criminal activities.

But that is not the only issue. With the overruling of Roe v Wade, there have been many privacy concerns regarding surveillance of women, and the increase in stalking is one of them.

“Stalkerware is likely to experience an uptick in use following the Roe v Wade ruling as nefarious individuals and organizations look to capture personal details on individuals and their whereabouts. Location tracking is currently getting a significant amount of attention,” warned Covington.

Adkins agreed and explained that “There are several states (Texas, Oklahoma, and Idaho are examples) that have passed the so-called “bounty laws” that incentivize people to sue anyone who has assisted in a person getting an illegal abortion.” He believes it increases stalkerware threats because there are many more interested parties involved now.

What can be done

Adkins says that the most obvious signs of stalkerware on your device are unusual activities on your smartphone: decreased battery life, your device getting warmer, and higher data usage than normal.

He also advises to review what apps are on your device and “think hard about allowing someone else to use or access your phone. It does not take long to install stalkerware. Do not give others your pin code to access your phone. The same goes for fingerprint access or facial recognition. Consider installing an app that will check your device for stalkerware.”

At the end of the day, “vigilance and awareness,” as Adkins states, are the best protection measures against stalkerware.


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