Stalkerware has been on the rise for several years. Smartphones have been a lifeline for many victims of domestic abuse, as they offer a channel of communication with the outside world, to friends and support systems that can help them escape their abusers. However, As we have become more reliant on tech, more and more abusers have looked to digital methods to exert that control.
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The pandemic has led to a staggering rise in the number of domestic abuse and tech abuse cases being reported. Tensions ran high throughout the lockdowns with the nation’s mental health taking a collective dip. The stats show that this problem is only getting worse. The proportion of people reporting they were coping well with the stresses of the pandemic has declined slowly and steadily, from 73% in April 2020 to 60% in September. While for many the added stress and anxiety manifests itself in feelings of depression or suicidal thoughts, there are those whose plummeting mental health causes them to distrust the people closest to them, with this lack of trust spiralling into various forms of domestic abuse, including tech abuse.
During the lockdowns when we were all shut inside for months on end we naturally leaned more on our devices for a window into the outside world, giving us the connection we craved with family and friends to alleviate the boredom and monotony of the same four walls. Unfortunately, this increased time spent poring over our phones triggers feelings of paranoia and jealousy in those who are predisposed to or already committing acts of domestic abuse. This paranoia drives perpetrators to seek out ways to spy on their partners or family members to know what they are doing on their phones, and therefore we are seeing a huge surge in searches and downloads of so-called stalkerware apps. NBC reported a 1600% increase in stalkerware downloads during the lockdowns in the US.
Why is it a problem?
These apps can be used to create a de facto copy of the victim’s device that can be accessed at any time by their stalker. They can see text messages, listen to phone calls, access social media accounts, search history and banking information, as well as use the location services to see exactly where the victim is at any given moment. These apps will also notify the stalker if the victim finds and deletes the app. This can be incredibly dangerous for those in domestic violence situations, as having their stalking behaviour uncovered can often be a catalyst for more physical abuse. It also means that the abuser would be immediately alerted to any attempt to contact friends or family and organize an exit.
How does this happen?
While the motivation behind tech abuse will vary case by case, one unifying factor contributing to its meteoric rise is the ease of use and availability of these apps. Digitally stalking someone, especially if you have access to their device, has never been so easy. All it takes is a quick google search and a few minutes alone with the device.
Intercepting electronic communications and downloading monitoring software on a device that you do not own are clearly defined as criminal offences. So how are the downloads of these apps continuing to skyrocket?
The unfortunate answer is that the makers of many of these apps are deliberately misrepresenting their customer base in the marketing materials, positioning the apps as parental or employee monitoring software. For example, one provider’s website features a disclaimer in the footer stating that the app should only be used for parental or employee monitoring purposes and that users are legally bound to disclose the use of the app to the owner of the device. However, writ much larger and more centrally is the boast that the app is invisible to the end user. It seems like a brazen open secret that these apps are being used to monitor adults without their permission, but while the subscription fees are being paid and the ambiguous 5-star trust pilot reviews roll in, no one seems to be able to do anything about it.
Are search engines turning a blind eye?
Another big indication that these app providers know exactly what their software is being used for is their use of targeted advertising and SEO advertising.
If you type ‘spy app cheater’ into the search bar of Google the top ads you will get are for Webwatcher, Flexispy and Mspy.
If you type ‘read wife’s texts app’ you get ads for Webwatcher and Mspy again. MSpy’s ad contains the words ‘see wife’s text messages… real time monitoring’.
If you type ‘read girlfriends texts app’ again you get ads for Webwatcher and Mspy. MSpy’s ad this time reads ‘see who your girlfriend is texting’.
This begs the question – if using these apps to monitor your partner’s phone covertly for signs of cheating is illegal, why are they allowed to advertise under these search terms on Google? Surely, we can all agree that it is deeply unethical for search engines to profit from these app providers as they deliberately advertise that their software can be used to commit a crime easily and secretly.
What can we do to prevent it?
If you are worried that someone is accessing the contents of your phone, or the phone of someone you know you can perform a scan, using one of the anti-spyware tools from Certo to ascertain what has been installed on your device. In the meantime, you should continue to use the device in a way that will not arouse suspicion from the stalker.
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