Stalkerware – a threat that is still there

Stalkerware is a term used for tracking applications that allow secret collection of information about the owner of the phone. These applications allow you to read messages on social networks and in applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, etc., view contact lists and call history, track victim movements, collect information about planned calendar events, view photos saved on phones, take screenshots and front-facing photography.

Stalkerware is dangerous software because it is very often used by bullies to control their victims, most often their family members or partners. Physical violence and digital abuse often go hand in hand.

Kaspersky, which is one of the founders Coalitions against stalkerware, regularly publishes reports on the current situation regarding stalkerware, using data provided by Kaspersky Security Network (KSN), a global network for the exchange of information on cyber threats. This year’s report also includes the results of a survey on digital abuse in which more than 21,000 respondents from 21 countries participated.

Data obtained from KSN show that in 2021, about 33,000 users of the system were affected by stalkerware, which is the historical minimum. For the sake of comparison, in 2020, almost 54,000 people were affected by such applications, and in 2019, more than 67,000.

Unfortunately, this does not mean that this threat will gradually disappear in the future, but that this reduction is a consequence of the pandemic and the fact that due to locking in, those who are the majority users of such applications did not need additional tools for spying and controlling victims.

Among the survey participants who stated that their intimate partners were spying on them with the help of technology (those who are not aware of such spying were not taken into account), the distribution of stalking tools was as follows:

Mobile applications – 50%

Tracking devices such as AirTags – 29%

Laptop applications – 27%

Webcam – 22%

Smart home systems – 18%

Fitness bracelets – 14%

These statistics include only the data of users who agree to submit them to KSN. The anti-stalker coalition, which brings together representatives of the IT industry and non-profit organizations, believes that the total number of users affected by this threat could be 30 times higher. In other words, according to this estimate, about a million people around the world fall victim to stalkerware each year.

Most of the stalkerware victims among KSN users were from Russia, Brazil and the US, similar to the previous two years.

The legal framework governing digital abuse, especially stalkerware, varies from country to country, but in most cases, recording people without their consent is illegal. However, you should know that the legal responsibility for stalkerware can be borne by the person who uses it, not its developer. That’s why, says Kaspersky, stalkerware is in a kind of gray zone. The combination of stalkerware functions is definitely illegal, at least in some countries, but many other countries do not directly prohibit its development and distribution. However, that is gradually changing. For example, in April 2021, the US Federal Trade Commission banned a company from selling stalkerware for the first time.

Nevertheless, surveillance applications are still actively distributed on the Internet. In rare cases, you can download them from official app stores, where they are usually presented as anti-theft or parental control apps. These types of applications have similar functions as stalkerware, but there is a clear difference: stalkerware runs hidden from users and without their consent.

According to Kaspersky Lab, there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of stalkerware being found on your device:

Set a complex alphanumeric password of at least eight characters on your phone. Don’t reveal it to anyone! Change your password regularly, for example, every few months.

Be careful who has physical access to your phone. Do not leave it unattended if possible.

Download applications only from official stores. Always pay attention to the comments, ratings and features of the application.

Install reliable security software on your device. Check to see if the security solution you choose can detect such software.

If your device’s battery and mobile data are running low, this may be a sign that you have tracking software on your device. Such applications use device resources because they must constantly maintain a connection with the servers that control them. Android device owners should also pay attention to applications that have dangerous permissions. If you have unknown applications installed on your device, this is a good cause for concern – it means that you do not know who installed these applications, when and why.

The risk for Android smartphones is usually higher than for the iPhone, since iOS is much more closed in nature. However, even fans of Apple devices cannot fully count on it. With physical access to the device and jailbreaking, tracking is also possible if you use an iPhone.

If you receive the phone as a gift, keep in mind that tracking software may already be installed on your phone. And it doesn’t have to be physically installed by the person giving it to you, so just because the phone is unopened, in its original packaging, doesn’t mean it’s safe because there are companies that provide stalkerware installation services on new phones that come in their original packaging.

“We cannot recommend that you remove the tracking application if you discover it on your phone. The persecutor will find out sooner or later, which can often lead to further problems, ”says Kaspersky Lab.

The company’s experts have developed TinyCheck, a tool that allows you to discreetly check if you have spyware on your device. You do not install TinyCheck on your phone, but on a special external device and the tool acts as an intermediary between your Wi-Fi router and the phone. After installation, TinyCheck analyzes the device’s Internet traffic in real time, and if it sends a lot of data to known spy servers, TinyCheck will tell you.

You need some technical knowledge to use TinyCheck, and using it at home can be risky and unproductive. The good news is that non-profit organizations and the police use this tool to help victims of domestic violence.

Source: Kaspersky

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