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Stalkerware: The Software You Don't Want on Your Devices

Stalkerware: The Software You Don't Want on Your Devices
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By Susan Hoffman
Contributor, InCyberDefense

Technology has many amazing possibilities. It’s enabled us to receive a massive amount of information customized to our personal tastes, to easily communicate with virtually anyone, and to give us unique windows into events that occur all over the globe and in space.

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But technology has its downsides as well. Companies can harvest data we’d prefer to keep private, and trolls may ridicule our online content. In addition, we have to protect our computers and mobile devices from viral infections.

Some users may also have to deal with stalkerware – software that is secretly installed on a smartphone or tablet so that someone else can track where you are and what you’re doing. Sometimes, this software is used for benign purposes. For example, it can be utilized by parents wanting to track a child’s location or by companies that want to monitor their employees’ location and activities.

But stalkerware – also known as spyware – is more sinister if whoever is tracking you is someone you don’t want to be in contact with, such as a vengeful ex-spouse who intends to use the software for digital gaslighting.

How Stalkerware Works

In order to install stalkerware on a mobile device, for instance, it’s usually necessary to have physical access to the targeted phone or tablet. A perpetrator typically tracks down an app from a publicly available site, buys it for a small fee, and installs it on the victim’s mobile device.

According to Kaspersky’s Leonid Grustniy, “These apps stay hidden and keep their users informed about device location, browser history, SMS messages, social media chats, and more. Some of them can even make video and voice recordings.”

The Use of Stalkerware Poses Cybersecurity and Legal Threats

Some stalkerware apps are not secure because they are not built in a way that complies with app store policies. Grustniy notes, “You have to consent to installing third-party apps – which, in turn, opens the door to hosts of malware.”

In addition, the information retrieved by a stalkerware app is sent to a server. As a result, others – not just the stalker – have the potential to access that private information.

In addition, installing a stalkerware app on someone’s mobile device places you on shaky legal ground. According to Vice, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) banned a company from selling stalkerware apps that monitor other mobile devices for illegitimate purposes.

James Barney, associate professor of legal studies at AMU, also warns that it is not a good idea to install this type of software on another person’s computer or phone. He says, “In most cases, it would be illegal under federal or state law to install spyware on another person’s computer or phone if it is owned by a third party and the spyware was installed without the third party’s knowledge or consent.”

Getting Rid of Stalkerware on Your Mobile Device

By design, stalkerware can be difficult to detect. But there are ways to protect your electronic devices and to get rid of stalkerware once you find it.

  • Use a hard-to-guess passphrase, and don’t leave your mobile phone unattended, even when you’re at home.
  • Check your mobile device regularly and delete any apps you don’t recognize.
  • Run a malware scan on your computer and phone.
  • Change your passwords at regular intervals.

Charlie Osborne of ZDNet says that you can also perform a factory reset and clean install on a mobile device to remove some types of stalkerware. However, be careful to back up items that you want to preserve, such as photos and videos.

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