There was a time when the word “stalker” conjured up images of obsessed fans hounding celebrities. You don’t have to be rich and famous to fall prey to the wave of digital spies that can track our every move. Know your enemy, they say. So, in this blog, we’ll examine exactly what stalkerware is, how it works, and the devices it’s most likely to infect. Hopefully, by gaining a deeper understanding of this sinister software you’ll be able to detect stalkerware on your mobile phone and remove it fast.
What is stalkerware and how does it work?
Stalkerware is software that’s designed to track and monitor someone’s digital activity without their knowledge or consent. It can secretly spy on a range of activities—from web searches, text messages, chats, and social media posts to photos, videos, and voice calls— all while remaining hidden in the background or disguised as something harmless, like a calendar app or calculator. It can also display an alarming array of skills: Some stalkerware includes features like keylogging and phone recording, while others can remotely control a phone’s camera or use the device’s GPS data to track its location.
Are stalkerware apps or spy apps legal? That’s tricky. Every person has a right to privacy and violating that has the potential to be abusive and even illegal. Yet stalkerware and spying software often inhabits a legal grey zone. Many of these apps market themselves as anti-theft solutions or as legitimate surveillance services for monitoring children’s internet access and employees’ use of work devices. So, they’re available as paid downloads in online app stores. In 2020, Norton Labs reported more than 800 stalkerware apps on the official Android Play Store, leading Google to remove the apps and update its policy. Google now prohibits the distribution of apps that collect and transmit personal or sensitive data from a device without adequate notice or consent (Developer Program Policy: September 16, 2020 announcement).
Easy-to-install stalkerware: Damage that’s hard to undo
While stalking apps can be easy and often legal to come by, their misuse is harder to control. Take the issue of stalkerware being used in abusive relationships to spy on an intimate partner or an ex. When the abuser is found out to be using stalkerware, it often leads to an escalation in violence. Non-profit organizations, like Refuge in the UK, are also reporting an increasing number of survivors seeking help in escaping these situations. In response The Coalition Against Stalkerware was founded in 2019.
A new survey of 1,001 US adults conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of Norton revealed a disturbing trend: Younger generations are more likely to accept online stalking as part of dating culture. 34% of Gen Z (ages 18-25) and 35% of Millennials (ages 26-42) said they don’t care if they’re stalked online, so long as they’re not stalked in-person. Find out more about the Norton study on online creeping here. Kevin Roundy, Senior Technical Director of Norton Labs, warns: “There is an important distinction between curiosity, such as searching someone up online to learn more about them, versus invading someone’s privacy or stalking… We highly encourage securing your devices and personal information to help protect your privacy, which can be critical not only for your Cyber Safety, but your physical and mental wellbeing as well.”
Am I infected? How to recognize mobile phone monitoring
Are you an Android user? Then you definitely need to read on. Stalkerware is usually seen on Android devices because Android allows users to disable security protection. Also, Android phones by design offer wider access to their operating system and data so that the screen reader and other accessibility features can work. Don’t breathe a giant sigh of relief just yet if you’re an Apple fan, because stalkerware can also be found on older, unpatched, or jailbroken iOS devices. Privacy abusers tend to concentrate their efforts on iCloud access or custom hardware, like keyboards with built-in keyloggers, for stalking iOS or macOS users though. Generally, if you want to detect cell phone spying, follow these top tips on what to look out for.
Does your device’s battery suddenly not last as long? Any unauthorized background activity can impact your battery life. Is there some lag when you’re typing and are apps not performing as well? Does your device run out of space fast, take longer to shut down, and does it suddenly feel excessively hot? Poorer performance and overheating are other possible symptoms of malware like stalkerware. Also check your data usage from previous months. If you notice sudden spikes in your data, even though you haven’t changed your online behavior, your phone could be infected. Do you hear weird sounds during phone calls, like beeping noises? That could be a sign that your call is being monitored. You phone might also light up or make unusual noises when in standby mode because of activities that are running in the background. Machines aren’t grumpy teenagers—don’t be tempted to dismiss any strange behavior.
Is it time to detect spy software on your device? Peek behind the scenes and act fast!
Cybersecurity experts recommend taking the steps below to help banish stalkerware. Like a multivitamin, the last three steps must be taken regularly for maximum effect.
Conduct a factory reset of your device: The safest, yet most drastic option, is to erase your device and restore it to factory settings. Be sure to back up your data before choosing this “nuke” option!
For an Android device, navigate to Settings, tap Backup & Reset, and then choose Factory Data Reset. This will erase your phone and update it to the latest version of Android. On iOS, navigate to Settings, choose General, and then scroll to the bottom and click on Reset. Here you can select Erase All Content and Settings. This will wipe your device and install a fresh copy of iOS. Whatever your device or operating system, it’s always a good idea to make sure that you’re running the latest versions of any software. Hackers can slip through the security loopholes in outdated versions.
On Android devices, make sure that Google Play Protect is on: This is designed to protect you against malicious Android apps, both third-party and in the app store. When switched off, stalkerware or malware outside of Google Play can be installed. When someone plants stalkerware, the app asks to disable Google Play Protect first so it can work. Therefore, check your Google Play Protect settings through the Google Play app to make sure that it’s enabled, and that it’s recently scanned your device.
Check if a device admin app has been installed: These administrative apps are designed to be legitimately used by companies to remotely manage their employees’ phones, disable features, and wipe data to prevent data loss. To achieve this, they must gain broad access to Android systems—and in the wrong hands, this can also create the ideal conditions for stalkerware: When these apps are misused, they may allow stalkerware apps to record the screen and snoop on the device owner.
Know your phone and do a regular spring clean! Be proactive. Go through your installed apps and check for any that you don’t recognize or don’t know the function of. Then uninstall them by going to the settings on your phone and locating your apps list. Also regularly check the accessibility settings of all installed apps—even legitimate apps sometimes demand unnecessary access to deeper data and your camera. If you’re out on a stalkerware hunt, remember that these apps don’t advertise their evil intentions with names like “I’m Watching You”. They can be disguised as “Accessibility”, “Device Health” or even as “Calendar Updater”. Also, removing a spyware app won’t delete any data that has already been collected and uploaded to its servers.
Before you proceed, please remember to be cautious and have a safety plan in place. Finding and removing spyware from your phone may alert the person who planted it in the first place, which could create an unsafe situation. The Coalition Against Stalkerware offers advice and guidance for victims and survivors of stalkerware.
Be cyber-savvy and protect your privacy from stalkerware, and more
Most stalkerware apps are installed through physical access to a device, so keeping your mobile secure is your best protection. Have a password or enable the fingerprint reader, and always lock your phone if you’re leaving it unattended. If you’re using iOS, enable two-factor authentication on your iCloud account. If someone gives you a new phone as a gift, you have great friends, but consider performing a full restore. As a general digital security tip, it’s always important to have trusted anti-malware protection, and to keep all your devices up to date. Consider a security app that will monitor you device and scan for potentially unwanted apps.
Avira Free Antivirus for Android helps protect you from the latest malware. It contains a host of tools to help prevent unauthorized access to the contents of your phone, including camera and microphone protection. Applock can lock your apps and helps control who opens them. There’s also the mobile security solution for iOS fans: Avira Free Mobile Security for iOS comes with VPN, an iOS updater, a Privacy Manager (to help prevent Siri from accidentally recording conversations), and more.
While much of our privacy and security is in our own hands, it’s important to add that industry leaders must consider how their technology could be used by those deliberately trying to violate our privacy. They bear a great responsibility: Better safety begins in the design process.