How to detect spy software on your computer

By Ivana Davidovic
BBC News Business Reporter

Image source, Getty Images

Google has removed several ads for apps that encouraged potential users spying on their partner’s phones.

Maria believes she grew up with a loving Catholic family, on the east side of America. Large Sunday dinners were an everyday fixture. She admired her parents’ marriage, and wanted the same respect in her own relationships.

It was like she had fallen in love with her husband when they met in her twenties.

The romance was quickly shattered, and it became a story of abuse and control for 25 years. The name calling began first. Next, she had complete control over her finances and her movements. Finally, they were able to take full control of their three children.

Her husband opposed her having a job in which she interacts with others and banned her using the computer.

According to her, “He called me fat everyday and would blockade me from the house when he got mad at me.”

The financial abuse escalated eventually. The first was to take her clean-up paycheque. Next, he tried to get credit in Maria’s name by using Maria’s social insurance number.

Maria broke down six years ago after hearing him tell her he wanted Maria to die. Her church and her family helped her to create a escape plan.

Following the foreclosure of their house, they moved in together. For the first time, she was able to use a computer and set up Facebook. She began dating.

Soon, however, her ex husband would start to quote the messages she sent to him. Also, her ex began to appear wherever she was.

One day, she would see him suddenly driving alongside her on a motorway. One time, she felt so afraid that he might be following her on a motorway and that he could pull a gun. She called the police.

She didn’t press charges but the stalking subsided eventually and she moved farther away. However, she discovered she was the victim of stalkerware.

Stalkerware, a commercially-available software program that allows you to spy on someone via their device (usually a smartphone) without their permission.

You can view the messages and files of another person, as well as their location.

Eva Galperin founded the Coalition Against Stalkerware to tackle this problem in 2019.

After reviewing reports about a variety of victims who had been raped, she decided to start the group. She was concerned that their lives would be destroyed by an abuser’s use of technology. She explains that if someone has your phone, the possibilities of being abused are huge. Blackmailing victims with threats of sharing private photos could lead to them being manipulated.

According to Ms Galperin, in domestic abuse cases that she has encountered, there is “almost universally some level of tech-enabled violence”, which often includes stalkerware.

She says, “It is often associated with the most violent cases — because it is such an effective tool of coercive controlling.”

According to research, stalkerware has become a major problem. Norton Labs conducted a study and found that people were installing stalkerware 63% more frequently between September 2020 & May 2021.

The report indicated that the increase may be attributable to lockdowns, and the fact that people spend more time at home.

The report revealed that personal belongings can be easily accessed by arm’s reach. This could increase the opportunities for tech-enabled abuse perpetrators to place stalkerware onto their partners’ devices.

In the past two years Ms Galperin managed to persuade a number of antivirus companies to consider this kind of malware more serious. This followed a initial hesitation to label stalkerware an undesirable program – or malware- due to its potential legitimate uses.

Google took down several advertisements for spy apps encouraging potential users to track their partner’s mobile phone in October. This app is often targeted at parents who want to track their children’s messages and movements. However, abusers have used it to spy on spouses.

SpyFone, an app that collects data and uses it to track and share people’s movements, was found guilty of violating the US Federal Trade Commission.

These positive steps aside, there are still many stalkerware apps and guidance on using them online.

Ms Galperin says that the FTC will soon be investigating firms buying and selling location data without users’ knowledge. Private investigators who track the locations of their targets with this technology are able to use it, she says.

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Stalkerware is intentionally difficult to spot so even tech-savvy people can be tempted.

Charlotte, a senior cybersecurity analyst was one such example.

She began to notice strange things happening to her phone shortly after getting engaged. Her phone would shut down and then drain quickly. This is a sign that stalkerware could have been installed.

She finally made the connection after her partner stated that he was always there for her.

For advice, she attended a hacker group. She knew some faces from the industry she worked for and was familiar with others.

Surprised to see a “culture acceptance” of the ability to track your partner, she was stunned.

Her experience in a “tech bro” setting inspired her to become a cybersecurity professional to support the industry from “different perspectives”.

You can find many companies that claim they can hack someone’s phone with just your number. These services usually charge a few hundred dollars in crypto currency.

While law enforcement may have access to software that has these capabilities, cybersecurity experts think they are scams. Charlotte states that consumer-grade stalkerware relies heavily on “social engineering,” and people should be aware of this.

It is possible that the target may be sent a text message inviting them to click on a hyperlink.

Oder a fake app that masquerades as legitimate. One might be shared.

Charlotte advises that you don’t be afraid to remove suspicious apps if it gives up many warnings.

Sometimes they resort to scare tactics to convince users not to delete the software. Many social engineering methods are used by them.

Charlotte suggests that you perform a factory reset on your phone and change all passwords to your social media accounts. Also, make sure to use two-factor authentication whenever possible.

How can we best tackle this problem?

Most countries have anti-stalking and wiretapping laws.

For example, in 2020, France introduced a new bill on domestic violence which, among others, reinforced sanctions on secret surveillance: geo-tracking someone without their consent is now punishable with one year’s imprisonment and a fine of €45,000 (£38,000; $51,000). The fines could be even more severe if your partner does this.

Forward-looking ways

Eva Galperin says that it isn’t a problem we can expect any new legislation to fix.

For instance, she believes that Apple and Google should make it difficult to purchase these apps from their respective stores.

Importantly, she says, police must be given better training to deal with the situation.

According to her, one of the most significant problems she observes is when “survivors” go to law enforcement and expect them to enforce it. They then get gaslit and told they have no problem.

Cyberstalking is a growing problem that has resulted in a new service for domestic abuse victims.

CETA, the Clinic To End Tech Abusive – Cornell University is an example of such a facility. CETA helps abuse victims and conducts research on tech misuse.

Rosanna Bellini of CETA said that sometimes they won’t recommend taking out stalkerware right away from victims’ phones – unless there is safety planning done with a case worker. This approach has been proven to work in the past: If an abuser suddenly gains access to victim’s cell phone, this can cause violence to escalate.

Maria is now free of her abusive marriage after six years.

“I have a wonderful relationship with someone who truly cares for me. She is also behind me telling my story.

Sometimes she is still anxious about her smartphone. Her diagnosis was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, she wanted other survivors to be aware that cyber-stalking can be a huge problem.

Do not be afraid. There are many resources available. My achievements are impressive and I believe anyone, at 56 years old, can make it.

  • You or someone you care about have suffered domestic violence or abuse. These organizations may be able help.


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