Motherboard

Are you being stalked through your phone?

Tech and science publication Motherboard has been trying for weeks to warn a certain stalkerware company that they’ve been hacked. The app’s services are not secured, so hackers are sitting on a gold mine of exposed pictures, videos, messages and more.  

Motherboard has called out spyware providers for their deplorable security practices many times before, but these companies are all about invading privacy, so naturally they don’t care about the privacy of hacking victims.  

Stalking apps are especially vulnerable because their goal is to operate cheaply, not securely; there are hundreds vying for a slice of this business. And their customers are in no position to complain about their data being leaked – more often than not, they're using the software to commit crimes.  

What is stalkerware?

Stalkerware is what it sounds like: apps and services designed to let you track, without a user’s knowledge, things on their laptop or smartphone such as photos, messages, emails, browsing histories and GPS co-ordinates.  

Stalking apps are scarily salable. According to a study from Cornell University, there are roughly 300 apps on the market for android and iPhone.  

They’re also becoming popular with parents who want to know what their kids are up to online, but stalkerware is still mainly used by people who want to track their significant others – to find out whether a partner is cheating. And they’re commonly used by abusive ex-partners who can stalk their victims with relative anonymity. It’s invasive and creepy, and the data tracked is easy to exploit. 

Part of a bigger stalking issue

These apps and services are part of a major problem in this country, which is stalking in general. 

In just the last five years, data from StatsCan show about two million people have reported being the victims of stalking. Of those victims, only two in five report it to the police, and only a quarter of those reports ever result in charges being laid. Part of the reason for under-reporting is that more stalking is happening online, so it’s harder for police to investigate. 

Parental controls and spyware are not the same thing

Stalkerware and parental controls are very different means to the same end, which is keeping your kids safe online. Parental controls restrict the use of devices to safe situations, and block age-inappropriate websites. Stalkerware, by contrast, violates your kids’ trust by outright spying on them. 

The simplest solution is often the best

Never install stalkerware on your kids’ phones. If you’re tempted to do so, think about what that might be teaching them about what’s acceptable from authorities – it’s a slippery slope leading to an indifference about surveillance. 

 And never, ever stalk your boyfriend or girlfriend! If you care about your partner, don’t put their sensitive data in jeopardy by using these insecure apps. 

Combating the stalkerware industry

On a less personal level, payment processors such as PayPal and credit card companies should stop providing services to stalkerware firms. If they’re fined for accepting money from these apps – especially the ones that track cheating spouses – the offenses would be much harder to commit. When the cash is cut off, so is the crime.  

Services such as Find My Friends on Apple iOS devices should be updated to provide reminders to individuals on a daily, weekly or month basis if that feature is enabled on their device and whenever it is being used. GPS trackers built into modern cars should also provide audio and visual cues when they’re being tracked.