Online safety / July 21, 2021

Stalkerware - A dimension of cyber violence

Amanda Lee

Amanda Lee

Senior Project Manager, TELUS Wise

Wise - Article - Stalkerware - a dimension of cyber violence - image

I recently had the opportunity to attend a webinar, hosted by the National Cyber Security Alliance, on the subject of stalkerware - a form of malware that can be secretly installed on mobile phones, computers and laptops and most often used maliciously to monitor a spouse or partner without their knowledge. The webinar panelists spoke about the increase in domestic abuse resulting from the pandemic, and explained the role that technology has played. According to Kaspersky, 53,870 mobile users were victims of stalkerware in 2020.

Often sold as employee or child monitoring apps, these malware apps are readily available online for download, although not available in app stores. The intrusive apps are most prevalent on mobile devices, and are designed to be hidden from the victim, while they track and monitor their physical location and phone activities - including websites visited, phone calls, texts and more.

Installing stalkerare on Android devices is relatively easy; a person simply needs physical access to the device in order to download and install it. Putting stalkerware on Apple devices is more difficult however; the device needs to be jailbroken and the stalker would require the victim’s iCloud credentials as well as physical access to the device. Note: jailbreaking means to modify a device to remove restrictions imposed by the manufacturer or carrier, which would then allow the installation of unauthorized software.

It can be challenging to identify if a smartphone has been infected with stalkerware - it may be disguised in the form of an inconspicuous, harmless system-related app or may not even show up on screen at all. According to the experts participating in the webinar, however, there are some common signs that might suggest that a mobile device has stalkerware installed, listed below.

Signs that your mobile device may have stalkerware installed

  • Your battery drains quickly and your device is constantly overheating. Your data is being used more than normal or gets disabled altogether
  • You notice changes to your device settings that you didn’t update - for instance GPS, Wi-Fi or data being enabled or disabled
  • You receive text messages that appear to be system generated or don't make sense - (e.g. texts that look like system commands or code)
  • You notice pictures, screenshots or audio recordings on your device that you haven’t taken and/or your browser history is unfamiliar

Steps to take if you suspect stalkerware has been installed on your device

  1. Always think safety first. Before removing the malware, it is important to consider safety as violence could escalate if the stalker's access is cut off
  2. Consider whether you want to preserve any evidence prior to removal
  3. Connect with a domestic violence advocate on a device that hasn't been compromised like a public computer at a library or a friend's phone to find support in your community

While stalkerware is often installed without the victim knowing, there are ways in which we can minimize the risks:

  • Set boundaries with your device and never lend your phone to anyone
  • Use a complex lock screen password and change passwords on a regular basis
  • Do not disclose your password to anyone - not even family members or close friends - although we recognize it may be difficult to deny an abusive partner access to the device
  • Avoid using fingerprint unlock or FaceID as this can be easily abused
  • Do regular checks of your device - delete apps you don’t use and review the permissions granted to each app
  • Disable the option of third-party app installation on Android devices and refrain from using jailbroken iOS devices
  • Always download apps from an authorized app store like Google Play and iOS App Store

You can take it one step further and protect your devices from malware with a cyber-security solution like TELUS Online Security powered by NortonLifeLock™. NortonLifeLock takes a stand against domestic violence and is a founding member of the Coalition Against Stalkerware.

If you are in immediate danger or fear for your safety, please call 911.

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