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That off-brand calculator or calendar app you don’t remember downloading might be snooping on you. Even though the use of stalkerware to spy on adults is against the law, these duplicitous bits of code still pop up on app stores.
An abusive ex or stalker might use stalkerware to monitor their victims’ private lives. Because of their stealthy design, stalkerware can run hidden on your device without you even knowing it. But there are ways you can shine a light on stalkerware and take action.
What is Stalkerware?
Stalkerware, which is sometimes called spyware, refers to a type of app or software that is designed to be hidden from the owner of a device. As the name suggests, stalkerware is used for stalking – these insidious apps do things like spy on your activity, track your location, or even record all your keystrokes. Perpetrators of domestic abuse, stalking, and harassment (both online and offline) might use stalkerware to further intimidate and spy on their victims. Sometimes, stalkerware exists in a legal grey area – an app might be designed for monitoring children’s behavior, but can also be used by an abuser to spy on their victims.
Stalkerware is a Form of Abuse
The use of stalkerware is abuse, full stop. It is a violation of your privacy. Recording a person’s digital actions is also illegal.
If you suspect your device is infected with stalkerware, proceed as if you are being monitored. Stalkerware apps can track your web browsing history, so experts say you should not use an infected device to research support services such as advocacy, shelter, court information, or emergency services. Anything you view online may be revealed to the person monitoring you, including this blog post.
With some knowledge and help, you have the power to defeat stalkerware.
Signs of Stalkerware Infection
Some common indicators that your device may have been compromised by stalkerware include:
- Unusual battery drain, data usage, or performance issues
- Unknown or suspicious apps or files on your device
- Changes in your device settings or permissions
- Unexplained notifications or pop-ups
- Your partner or ex-partner reveals that they know information they could only know if they had access to your device
Generally, it is best to trust your gut. If you think you might be the victim of stalkerware, assume you are: take action to detect and remove it.
Detection and Removal of Stalkerware
The most effective way to get rid of stalkerware is to buy a new device. You will want to back up all your important data, like contacts and photos, to the cloud or an external hard drive. It’s an expensive option, but it is the surest way to evade stalkerware.
If getting a new device isn’t feasible, a factory reset is your next best option for removing stalkerware. A factory reset takes your device back to its settings when it came out of the box, so you’ll want to back up anything you don’t want to lose.
For detecting stalkerware, there are antivirus apps built to detect and remove common types of stalkerware. Doublecheck the antivirus’s work – look through your apps to see if there is anything you don’t remember downloading.
Before deleting any stalkerware, remember it might serve as important evidence. Take screenshots and screen recordings of anything you will want to show to law enforcement in the future.
Always remember, you aren’t alone! If you think you are the victim of stalkerware, seek out help. Organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Network to End Domestic Violence have resources and professionals available to talk. If you need someone to walk you through a factory reset or downloading an antivirus, for example, they have people who can talk to you on the phone.
Prevention and Protection from Stalkerware
By adopting a few behaviors, you can work to prevent stalkerware from being installed on your devices. Many of these tips will also reduce your risk of hackings, malware, and other cybercrime, too!
- Use strong, unique passwords for every device and account. A strong password is at least 15 characters long and a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols (like ^ and ?). Ideally, each password is a random string of characters, not recognizable words. You also want to secure each account with its own special password – that way, if one account’s password is cracked, your other accounts stay safe. Yes, that’s a lot of passwords! How do you remember them all? Use a password manager, which helps you generate, store, and maintain all your passwords.
- Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) for any account that allows it. MFA requires more than a password to log in, like a facial scan, responding to a text message, or approving access on a standalone app. MFA creates another fortified level for each account.
- Don’t share your device or account credentials with anyone. Your devices and accounts are yours and yours alone – you don’t owe anyone else access! One of the most common ways abusers can install stalkerware is because they’ve pressured their victim into sharing their passwords.
- Regularly update your device software and security apps. Updates ensure you have the latest security features. You can even turn on automatic updates so you don’t have to check them out. Many device manufacturers now will include fixes that eliminate stalkerware in their updates, but it’s an on-going battle.
- Learn to avoid phishing. Taking a few seconds to ensure an email, text message, or DM is legitimate can ward off cybercriminals and stalkers. Don’t click on links or download attachments in suspicious emails – that means don’t even click “unsubscribe.” Just report to your email service and delete it!
- Audit your accounts to see who is using them. Many of your online accounts will permit you to see what devices and apps have access. Log out of any device that shouldn’t be there. Even better, go ahead and change your password for that account, which will lock out anything that doesn’t have your new password.
Stalkerware is a Serious Crime
Getting spied on by stalkerware isn’t just a creepy violation, it’s a crime and a form of abuse. You deserve privacy, both online and off. Tech companies and policymakers need to work harder to eliminate shady stalkerware programs. Even still, other surveillance apps, like child monitoring software, can be weaponized as stalkerware against adults. Remember, when it comes to stalking and cyberstalking, trust your gut. There are people and organizations ready to help you right now.