Stalkerware: What is being done to protect victims as the number of cases rises

May 19, 2021 | Nahla Davies

This blog was written by an independent guest blogger.

People are increasingly becoming aware of the threats posed by hackers who infiltrate devices using viruses, spyware and malware. However, it may be time to shine the spotlight on “stalkerware”, a completely different type of cyber security threat that nevertheless has lasting negative repercussions. 

In this article, we will talk about this malicious software, which allows a remote user to surveil all activities on another user’s device. We’ll specifically focus on the implications of this particular type of cybercrime and how it ties in to domestic violence, stalking and harassment. 

We’ll also talk about how agencies are working together to end the use of stalkerware and how we can all be more informed and improve protection and detection of this type of malicious software. 

What is stalkerware?

Recent studies by the Kaspersky Institute have revealed the United States, along with Russia and Brazil, are among the top countries affected by “stalkerware” last year. Especially of note is the corresponding increase in victims of spyware coinciding with coronavirus lockdowns and remote work, indicating that opportunists and cyber criminals are taking advantage of an increasingly technologically connected society. 

Having the ability to stay connected with friends and family through technology is a gift, but it also opens up a door for receiving unwanted attention. We live in a society where most people save their most precious moments, intimate interactions and heavily guarded secrets on their phones, tablets and laptops in the form of photos, text messages, notes and more. 

Because of this, we are seeing an increase in software that enables other users to spy on people through their digital devices. All of this surveillance occurs without the other person even realizing it is happening, making this software even more powerful. This is the reason why the cyber security industry has rapidly expanded over the past few years, as their importance in the lives of companies and individuals has grown.

In computing, an application programming interface (API) is an interface that defines interactions between multiple software applications. “APIs tend to expose endpoints that handle object identifiers, creating a wide attack surface Level Access Control issue,” according to the security analysts at Cloud Defense. “Object level authorization checks should be considered in every function that accesses a data source using an input from the user.” Cyber criminals can use APIs to intercept events in targeted apps, thus surveilling the affected user.

Unfortunately, “stalkerware” is available to anyone who has access to the internet and the intent to seek it out. The Coalition Against Stalkerware seeks to raise awareness about this new cyber security threat and the ways in which it poses serious concerns for those who fall victim to it. According to the Coalition, stalkerware is most commonly used in situations of domestic violence or stalking. 

How is stalkerware applied?

Fortunately, there is some good news when it comes to stalkerware. Physical access to the device being monitored is required to install stalkerware on a victim’s phone. That means that if someone is able to keep their phone on their person and prevent anyone else from having access to the phone, the chances of that person having stalkerware installed is fairly slim.

Internet users need not fear becoming victims of a phishing email scam or clicking on a malicious link that will then proceed to install stalkerware onto their phone. However, it is not too difficult to surreptitiously install stalkerware on an individual’s phone. This is why it is so important for all mobile device users to always use a PIN number, pattern or password to gain access, and that these users make it a habit to regularly change these to keep safe. 

Before installing stalkerware, the malicious hacker must access the installation package for the spyware via a link from the stalkerware developer’s webpage. Obviously, reputable app stores such as Google Play or Apple iStore have banned all stalkerware from their stores. Individuals can look at their device settings or their internet usage history if they suspect they are falling victim to stalkerware, as this can leave a trail of evidence.

One common method of ensuring an individual has stalkerware installed on their phone is by buying a new device and presenting it to the victim as a gift. That way, the perpetrator can ensure that stalkerware is preinstalled on the device before the individual even uses it. 

Who are the perpetrators behind stalkerware?

Stalkerware is most commonly used by an intimate partner who is, for whatever reason, wishing to spy on their wife, husband, girlfriend, or boyfriend. Stalkerware is also commonly used by individuals who are obsessed with another person and wish to gain access to more information about said person in order to enhance their ability to stalk them. 

A recent study by the European Institute for Gender Equality reveals that 7 in 10 women who have reported experiencing cyberstalking have also experienced at least one accompanying form of physical or sexual violence. This finding emphasizes the connection stalkerware has in allowing criminals to more effectively target and perpetrate crimes against their victims. 

Similarly, individuals who are involved in intimate partner violence report that their abusers increasingly use technology to constantly surveil and gain control of them. And with 23% of Americans reporting that they know someone who has been the direct victim of a cybercrime aimed directly at them, it’s clear that crimes like stalkerware are not just going to go away. These statistics underscore the power of technology for good as well as bad uses.

Fortunately, many companies have come up with methods to protect users from cyber stalking and harassment. AT&T, for example, has an excellent feature which allows users to block calls from unwanted numbers and easily detect potential scams.

 However, there is little one can do to prevent the use of stalkerware on a device once it has been installed, meaning prevention is key to protecting oneself from this type of malicious software. 

With the help of stalkerware software, a malicious hacker can: 

  • Read anything that the targeted individual types on their phone, tablet or laptop - including passwords to online banking accounts, social media networks and personal text messages and emails
  • Have an increasingly accurate report of where the user is located geographically, tracking their movements in real time
  • Hear what they say on the phone, including phone conversations and commands to Siri, Alexa or other online assistants, as well as recording these dialogues
  • Have full access to messages sent on any messenger, despite whether encryption is used
  • See photos and videos stored in the device
  • Switch on the camera to record the user in real time. 

How do I stay safe from stalkerware?

To ensure your device remains unaffected by stalkerware, it is important to remember the following important steps to enhance your cyber security:

  • Never let anyone use your phone without being physically present to watch what they are doing on it. Do not leave your phone unlocked and remember to regularly update your password or PIN. 
  • Do not disclose your password or pin to anyone - not even your partner, family members, children or close friends
  • Regularly delete apps you don’t use and review permissions granted on each app
  • Disable the option of third party application installation on Android devices.

Unfortunately, in the context of domestic violence it can be incredibly difficult or impossible to prevent another person from having access to your device, especially when one fears for their physical or mental safety. 

Conclusion

Technology can bring powerful changes to a person’s life, whether good or bad. We all have a responsibility to become more aware of the best cybersecurity practices and ensure that our devices are protected as much as possible from potential cyber criminals. With a little knowledge and vigilance, we can all be more protected against would-be malicious hackers and cyber criminals.

Nahla Davies

About the Author: Nahla Davies

Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer. Before devoting her work full time to technical writing, she managed – among other intriguing things – to serve as a lead programmer at an Inc. 5,000 experiential branding organization whose clients include Samsung, Time Warner, Netflix, and Sony.

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