Mobile stalkerware is becoming a bigger threat than ever before

(Image credit: Future)

The threat of stalkerware has increased by more than threefold over the past three years, new figures from Avast have claimed.

The company’s Threat Researchers department, part of the Coalition Against Stalkerware, revealed that, based on its telemetry, the possibility of encountering this form of mobile malware increased 329% since 2020. 

Avast describes stalkerware as a “form of tech abuse” in which the attacker “steals the physical and online freedom of the targeted person” by tracking their location and monitoring their smartphone activity without the victim’s knowledge or consent. Through stalkerware, they’re able to keep tabs on the phone calls the victims are making, the text messages they’re exchanging, and the websites they’re visiting.

Huge concern

"The growth we’re seeing in stalkerware is a huge concern,” said Jakub Vavra, Threat Operations Analyst at Avast. “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. This is not only about stealing personal data, there are also tangible implications concerning the safety of the individual targeted.”

Most commonly, stalkerware imitates benign apps such as notes, calculators, or similar. That way they’re able to stay hidden in plain sight, with the victims seeing the apps every day on their phone and not knowing their true purpose. They’re often advertised as apps used to keep a close eye on children and other people that are unable to take care of themselves. Other times, they’re advertised as apps for tracking lost or stolen devices. 

“Stalkerware is an invasive monitoring tool abusers use to perpetrate stalking, harassment, and other forms of violence and abuse. National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) is deeply concerned about the significant increase in the use of stalkerware and the dangerous implications for survivors domestic and dating violence and sexual assault,” said Erica Olsen, Senior Director of Safety Net Project at NNEDV. “Our Safety Net Project conducted an assessment of service providers documenting that the most common types of technology abuse – harassment, limiting access to tech, and surveillance – all increased during the pandemic. We are grateful for Gen’s partnership and dedication to addressing stalkerware and survivor safety.”

The best way to make sure your devices aren’t sporting any stalkerware is to go through all of the apps installed on the device and make sure they all work as intended. If the phone suddenly drops in performance, or starts crashing and freezing for no apparent reason, there could be a stalkerware app hiding somewhere. Also, Avast says that if suddenly you have a new browser homepage, new icons on your desktop, or a different default search engine, it might be a good time to scan the phone.

Sead Fadilpašić

Sead is a seasoned freelance journalist based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He writes about IT (cloud, IoT, 5G, VPN) and cybersecurity (ransomware, data breaches, laws and regulations). In his career, spanning more than a decade, he’s written for numerous media outlets, including Al Jazeera Balkans. He’s also held several modules on content writing for Represent Communications.