Keeping Women Safe Online is a three-part series examining the dangers women face online. Here in Part 1, we examine the insidious nature of stalkerware and what action you can take if you feel you are being stalked through technology.
Swipe right, swipe left, has become part of the vernacular and part of finding love online.
Around the globe, millions take a swipe hoping to land a love match. While many do find love online, for some, their dating experience becomes a nightmare when they find themselves the target of a stalker.
Alyssa* 24 years old, thought she had found her perfect match, but when things ended badly, he began showing up everywhere she went. On top of this, her phone started playing up and messages from her friends and family went missing.
Alyssa shares her nightmare dating experience.
I met my partner almost 12 months ago. We had a normal relationship during that time. He was a little insecure, more in a jealous way, but not too much. He always wanted to know who I was with and where I was going. Initially, I thought this was fine, as this was my first long-term relationship.
He would randomly turn up at places I was. I don’t live in a big city. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it. We’d run into each other, whether on a walk or at a bar.
Strangely, I noticed my phone would glitch and freeze and be very slow despite the phone being only a year old. My friends would text me asking why I was deleting messages in Messenger that I had ‘sent’ and I would be confused and say, I didn’t delete anything.
One afternoon, I was buying groceries for dinner. He turned up at the store and then began questioning me. He became very irate and demanded why I didn’t invite him to dinner with my sister. His behaviour was so intense, I felt troubled by the whole situation.
Over the next few weeks, we fought more, and I told him we need to break up.
One day I was cleaning out some apps and updating ones on my phone. I noticed an app I didn’t recognise. It’s similar to ‘parenting control’’ apps that helps parents monitor their children.
I looked into it and was horrified to see the date it was downloaded on my iCloud and it coincided with the date my ex started turning up at random places where I was.
Immediately, I then changed my passwords and deleted the app.
I kept getting emails about someone trying to log in.
In my heart I knew it was him who hacked my email, and Facebook Messenger. It was him who tracked me through an app he had downloaded on my phone. How dangerous and violating is that?
Since removing the app and changing passwords, I have not run into him in any public space, despite the small town.
Sadly, Alyssa story is just one of many.
According to digital security and privacy firm Avast, the risk on encountering stalkerware in Australia has risen 183 per cent over the past three years.
What is stalkerware?
Stalkerware is a category of malware and a form of tech abuse.
The application steals the physical and online freedom of the targeted person by covertly tracking their location and monitoring smartphone activity, including websites visited, text messages and phone calls.
Another common type of stalkerware are apps that market themselves as lost or stolen device trackers.
Once installed on a device, they either hide themselves completely or present themselves as applications to evade detection from the unsuspecting phone owner.
The stalker can control these apps remotely and carry out similar malicious activity.
Threat operations analyst at Avast, Jakub Vavra, said the growth in stalkerware is a huge concern.
“Stalkerware is often installed secretly on mobile phones by abusive spouses, ex-partners, so-called friends or concerned parents, and has the capacity to inflict serious physical and psychological harm on those affected.”
How do I know If I am being stalked?
- Your device’s performance is suddenly and unexpectedly worse. You may notice slow-downs or more frequent crashes or freezes.
- Your settings have changed without your consent. If you suddenly have a new browser homepage, new icons on your desktop, a different default search engine, or other changes that you did not make, it might be due to stalkerware.
- You get odd messages, such as a sudden flood of pop-ups or error messages from programs that always worked fine before.
- You have unexplained calls on your bill.
- The abuser has had physical access to your device.
- The abuser knows things about what you are doing, where you are going and who you have been communicating with.
How to prevent stalkerware
- Ensure your phone or device uses two-factor authentication such as a pin code and a second form of identity confirmation, for example an email backup or thumbprint.
- Install a reliable antivirus product on your mobile phone. A good mobile antivirus will treat stalkerware as a potentially unwanted program (PUP) and give you the option to remove it.
How to manually remove stalkerware from your device
Vavra warns anyone who finds themselves in a situation of coercive control must make sure they are free from harm before removing the stalkerware application from a phone.
“Removing stalkerware from your phone could inform the abuser that you have found and deleted it, and could put your physical safety at risk. Reboot your phone into safe mode. Hold down your phone’s power button to see your ‘Power off’ and ‘Restart’ options. Long-press the Power off option and the ‘Reboot to safe-mode’ option will appear. Tap OK.”
How to remove any suspicious apps: Once rebooted in safe mode, open your Settings, and tap ‘App’s or ‘Apps and notifications’. Sort through your apps and look for anything you do not recognise.
How to remove any malicious apps: Tap ‘Uninstall’ to remove it from your device. If you’re not sure if an app is malicious, search for the name of the app on the internet to see if other people have shared any issues with it.
AirTags, well-meaning devices with a dark side
When Apple developed the Apple AirTags to help customers locate items, it worked incredibly well. The small button device can clip onto keys or similar items and helps you find where you’ve put them via the app.
The downside is that someone can easily slip an AirTag into your bag or car without your knowledge and then track where you go. The device then becomes a relatively cheap way of effective stalking.
Fearing the backlash of Airtags being used for darker purposes, Apple has made changes to make misuse harder.
In 2022, the company announced that every user setting up their AirTag for the first time will be alerted that an unknown AirTag is travelling with them and maybe using the device as a tracker without consent.
Hefty fines are another potential way to stop stalkerware reaching the market.
In February, 2023, an American spyware producer, Patrick Hinchy was find US$410,000 for illegally promoting spyware that allowed individuals to monitor another person’s device without their awareness.
New York’s Attorney General Letitia James said Hinchy’s apps and products put people at risk of stalking and domestic abuse, and were aggressively promoted through Hinchy’s 16 different companies.
“Today’s agreement will block these companies from allowing people to be monitored without their awareness, and will continue our ongoing fight to protect New Yorkers’ rights, safety, and privacy,” said James.
Australian government grant to stop technology-based abuse
In April 2023, the government called for applications to fund innovative projects that help put a stop to technology-based abuse against women under a new $10 million grants program.
The ‘Preventing Tech-based Abuse of Women Grants’ program is led by the eSafety Commissioner as part of the National Plan to end violence against women and children 2022-32.
Under the initiative, non-government organisations can apply for grants of up to $500,000 to develop prevention projects to stop people using technology to stalk, threaten, control or undermine women, or carry out other violent or coercive behaviours.
For 24/7 family and domestic violence counselling support, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
For online dating advice, visit: eSafety.gov.au/women/being-social/online-dating
To report serious online abuse, visit: eSafety.gov.au/report
*Name changed to protect the privacy of the individual.