Imagine if someone else saw everything you did on your mobile device. They could see who you send text messages to, check your Internet browsing activity, and even follow your physical location by watching your device’s GPS.
Apps that allow people to monitor others without their consent are becoming more popular, and they’re posing a dangerous threat. Sure, monitoring apps might be useful for parents or employers, but some of these apps, known as “stalkerware,” are being used by domestic abusers to stalk and monitor their intimate partners.
Stalkerware is supposed to be stealthy so if you have some on your device, you most likely won’t realize it. For this reason, you should take extra caution with your devices and learn how to recognize and remove stalkerware.
What is stalkerware?
Stalkerware is a type of app that, once installed on a device, tracks a user’s activity. It can log keystrokes, track location, take screenshots, record video, and much more. Stalkerware apps also have a stealth mode which allows them to pass as innocuous calendar or calculator apps, so the phone’s user is unaware that they’re being tracked.
While there are legitimate uses for these kinds of tracking apps, such as parental monitoring, there is also overwhelming evidence showing that they’re being used to stalk individuals. Stalkerware apps are particularly prominent in domestic abuse cases, allowing abusers to track and spy on their intimate partners.
Stalkerware apps have been around for years, but they proliferated starting in 2020. NortonLifeLock carried out a study on stalkerware and found a 63% jump in the number of devices reporting stalkerware samples on a daily basis between 2020 and 2021.
As these apps become increasingly popular, it’s vital to know what they do, how they get installed on your device, and what you can do to protect yourself from them.
How stalkerware gets installed on your device
Stalkerware apps are usually installed by someone who has access to your phone. They need to be able to download and install the app without your noticing and this is difficult to do remotely. In most cases, the person who installs the stalkerware is someone close to you. Either they have your passcode or are able to use your phone after you’ve left it unlocked and unattended.
Why antivirus and malware tech don’t catch stalkerware
A few years ago, stalkerware apps weren’t even on antivirus and malware detection companies’ radar and antivirus programs were only detecting about 10% of stalkerware. The most recent report from AV Comparatives, an antivirus testing site, found that antivirus software is now detecting anywhere from 60-95% of stalkerware.
Why was detection of stalkerware lacking?
Eva Galperin, founder of the Coalition Against Stalkerware and director of cyber security at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tested different antivirus solutions to answer that question. She says,
“Different companies had all kinds of justifications for why they might classify stalkerware as a sort of legitimate use. Because you can use it to track your children or your employees.”
She adds that some companies even thought letting intimate partners track each other was acceptable. Galperin started putting pressure on these companies to not only identify stalkerware but also to send alerts about the presence of stalkerware to users.
How do you find stalkerware?
The first protection against stalkerware is being able to identify it. There are few tactics to finding stalkerware on your device. The first is scanning your device with a malware scanning tool such as Malwarebytes, an official partner with the Coalition Against Stalkerware. If you are unable to scan a device because you are fearful of angering an abusive partner, you should contact the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) from a safe place to explain your situation instead.
If you’re unable to scan your device, you can look for some of the following signs on your phone:
- Your battery drains more quickly
- The phone is warm to the touch even when not in use or charging
- You can hear clicking, static, or distant voices when you are on a call
- It takes your phone longer to shut down
- You notice increased Internet activity or data usage
- Your phone operates more slowly
How to remove stalkerware
Before you scan your phone with an anti-malware tool or remove the stalkerware from your device, consider your safety. If your abuser finds out you removed the app, it could put you in a bad situation. You may also want to keep the stalkerware app as evidence if you pursue legal action later.
You can remove stalkerware from your device in two ways:
- Use a malware scanner to find and delete the stalkerware app for you.
- Do a factory reset of your phone.
The factory reset is the safest option because your phone will get rid of any stalkerware without you risking a scan to find it out if it’s actually present.
Protect yourself from stalkerware
Stalkerware is a growing threat that everyone should be aware of. You should be careful when granting other people access to your devices, but that doesn’t always stop stalkerware. Try to keep tabs on all the apps on your phone so you’ll notice if there is a new one that you didn’t install. Also, keep your phone’s operating system and all your apps up to date.
By being cautious and taking the appropriate action, you can protect yourself from stalkerware. For more information and resources, you can also visit the Coalition Against Stalkerware’s website.
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