What Is Stalkerware And How Does It Enable Abusers?

Have you ever been followed or tracked? Tormented, terrorized, or repeatedly harassed? If so, you may have been the victim of stalking. The act — which invokes fear and distress — affects millions. According to Stalking Awareness, it is estimated that 6 to 7.5 million Americans are stalked each year. But stalking can take many forms; stalkers don’t always approach you, or follow you. They don’t always call you, or leave unwanted messages, and not all stalkers are strangers. Sometimes, stalkers are spouses, partners, and parents — those we love most. What’s more, stalking isn’t always physical, it can be digital. Thanks to technology, “stalkerware” is taking on a life of its own.

Of course, you may be unfamiliar with the term. I was. But the concept is not new. Stalkerware is a program, app, tool, or device that allows you to spy on another’s private life. It helps you keep tabs on their whereabouts and/or online search activity. And while many of these programs are beneficial — “Find My,” for example, is an asset tracking product which allows you to locate your watch, phone, tablet, or other Apple device with the swipe of a finger (or push of a button) — these tools can be used with malintent.

Abusive or controlling partners can log in and find where you are 24/7, with the right credentials or previously granted access. They can see every place you visit, every space you exist in. And they can use that information to restrict your movements and/or restrain you. They can control you virtually, via digital abuse

What’s more, stalkerware against women is a particularly pervasive issue and can lead to violence on the part of the stalker. According to a 2017 report from the European Institute for Gender Equality, seven in 10 women in Europe who experienced cyberstalking also faced at least one form of physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner.

Here’s everything you need to know about stalkerware, and how you can protect yourself.

What is stalkerware?

As previously mentioned, stalkerware is software and/or hardware which is designed to track someone or thing. Most stalkerware is benign. It is designed to be of assistance to individuals, not hurtful or harmful. Apps which use your location, for example, typically do so in a helpful way. However, stalkerware can be (and is) used by abusers to monitor and track their victims. These applications are typically installed without the victim’s consent and run “in the background” so abusers can track their victims unnoticed.

“Stalkerware [is] typically set up on someone’s mobile phone without their knowledge or permission,” an article on TechRepublic explains. “Once installed, the app operates in stealth mode, so the user is unaware of its presence.” And these apps can track everything from audio and video to your location. Messages can also be accessed and read.

What forms of stalkerware are there?

There are several different types of stalkerware, including:

Software, like spyware or malware
Hardware, like Tile or Apple AirTag
Applications, like “Find My” and “mSpy”

Some programs give abusers access to your browsing history, phone records, and/or the ability to read your text messages in real time. Some let perpetrators find you using GPS, and some use the victim’s camera or microphone to listen to them and/or see their surroundings. These are usually installed secretly. They are successful because they are hidden.

How is stalkerware used — and why was it created?

While most “stalking” apps were created with good intentions — “FollowMee” and “Map My Run,” for example, were developed with safety in mind; they were created to protect runners, not harm them. But in the wrong hands, tracking-based software can be bad. 

“Stalkerware apps can be sold in app stores for legitimate uses, such as employer tracking, anti-theft, parental control, or family tracking,” an article on F-Secure reads. “Unfortunately… stalkerware apps are [also] used by different types of abusers. This could be the victim’s partner, their parent or a family member, a friend, or a colleague. Potential motivation to use these apps can be for example jealousy, overprotectiveness, control, abuse, and as the name suggests, stalking.”

How can you check your phone and/or device for stalkerware?

Because of the amount of devices out there — i.e. laptops, phones, watches, tablets, etc. — and the varied makes and brands, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. No one way to stop stalkerware exists, and that is why the problem persists. Stalkerware is not easy to identify or remove. However, you are not helpless or hopeless. Stalkerware can be discovered on any device, it just may take time. 

Review app permissions in your phone settings, as stalkerware apps will (typically) have broad permissions. Search for apps you don’t recognize — and if you find any, investigate them further. Check your browser history. To download stalkerware, abusers will have to visit certain sites, and if you suspect your phone or device has stalkerware on it, visit www.stopstalkerware.org. 

What can you do to protect your device — and yourself?

There are several things you can (and should) do to protect yourself, i.e., you should have a passcode or password on your device(s), one which you change frequently. You should keep your phone on your person at all times. Never lend it to anyone when you cannot see what they are doing. And, if you have an Android device, TechRepublic suggests downloading a cybersecurity solution, as these programs will notify and warn you if stalkerware is detected.

If you’re in a relationship where you feel trapped and afraid, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the Coalition Against Stalkerware, and others — for help and hope. 

 

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