Secret surveillance apps

From stalkerware to bossware, people are being monitored more than ever

Stalkerware has been around for a while but has thrived in the COVID era. So has domestic abuse, as victims are increasingly isolated at home with their abusers.

Every move you make

Even when victims manage to escape their abusers they’re finding that they’re still being tracked – or, more accurately, stalked. That’s because it’s relatively simple to install stalkerware on someone’s phone without them realizing it.

These apps then relay private information to an abuser including their location, photos, audio, browser and call history, text messages, and emails.

Stalkerware can not only grant an abuser insight into where a potential victim is, but their ability to know things they shouldn’t because of phone access can create tremendous psychological stress.

Stop the stalker

Partner violence and other types of stalking are far more complex than simply deleting apps and hoping the problem goes away.

And yet, if you feel you’re being tracked, it can be hard to tell since spyware apps can be disguised as parental controls or even innocent looking anti-theft apps.

But if you’re seeing large amounts of unexplained data usage on your phone that you don’t recognize and faster than average battery drain, those can be signs to check for these apps.

Considerations for staying safe

If you are dealing with a violent person or someone you’re still living with (or who has physical access to you), deleting the app will be immediately clear to them and could trigger an incident. In those cases, it’s best to consult a professional.

Advocacy groups and shelters, law enforcement agencies, and organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Network to End Domestic Violence may be able to give you good advice on your unique situation.

Bossware

People should also be wary of apps that employers ask them to download on their devices as those can be used to track employee movements throughout the workday. Employees aren’t exactly in a position to say no. But sometimes they don’t have to, the apps are installed without their knowledge.

This is, of course, quite different from being stalked by an abuser, but it’s yet another abuse of power enabled by new technology.

Employee tracking is big business in the new work-from-home era. This “Bossware” – such as Teramind, Time Doctor, StaffCop – is typically installed on company computers and difficult to detect and remove. It uses the same kinds of tools as stalkerware.

There can be some legitimate reasons to use some of these apps, though there are more legitimate ways to track people (such as children and the elderly) for safety using less invasive software.

But in the end, does anyone deserve this level of access to someone else’s life?
At what point does this technology turn into a grievous abuse of power?

Further reading:

Coalition Against Stalkerware

Zack Whittaker, “‘Stalkerware’ Phone Spying Apps Have Escaped Google’s Ad Ban” (TechCrunch, 2020)

Helena Pozniak, “Inside the Fight To Rid the World Of Abusive Stalkerware” (Wired UK, 2020)

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai and Joseph Cox, “Inside the ‘Stalkerware’ Surveillance Market, Where Ordinary People Tap Each Other’s Phones?” (Vice, 2020)

Bennett Cyphers and Karen Gullo “Inside the Invasive, Secretive “Bossware” Tracking Workers” (Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2020)

Emma Doyle, Report On Most Invasive Stalkerware Apps (Coalition Against Stalkerware, 2020)

Laura Huatala, “Stalkerware: What To Do If You’re the Target” (CNET, 2020)

(Audio) “Increase In Stalkerware Installations” (BBC News, 2020)

David Nield, “How to Check Your Devices for Stalkerware” (Wired, 2020)

Forbes Technology Council, “Stalkerware: The Growing Hidden-Software Crisis” (Forbes, 2020)