The scourge of stalkerware

Graham Cluley

Stalkerware

Stalkerware

Stalkerware. Software that allows someone else to spy upon every SMS text message you send or receive, who you’re speaking to on your smartphone phone, the pictures in your photo library, every social media post you make, your current location, and where you go and when.

Although sometimes marketed as apps to keep track of what your children are up to online, they are also often sold to jealous partners and people with an unhealthy interest in tracking someone without their knowledge.

Victims of domestic abuse are frequently the ones whose safety is put at danger by stalkerware, which will often attempt to hide its presence on a smartphone, making it tricky to discover let alone uninstall.

In a Wired report, Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) describes just how serious stalkerware can be:

“The people who end up with this software on their phones can become victims of physical abuse, of physical stalking. They get beaten. They can be killed. Their children can be kidnapped. It’s the small end of a very large, terrifying wedge.”

Galperin, who runs the EFF’s Threat Lab, took to the stage of the Kaspersky-run Security Analyst Summit 2019 conference in Singapore this week to call upon security firms to stop flagging stalkerware with wishy washy alerts of suspicious (if they’re detected at all), and instead treat them as downright malicious.

Kaspersky was the first security firm to publicly announce that it agreed with Galperin, and would more clearly warn smartphone users that their devices were infected with privacy-busting stalkerware.

Alerts

And this week mobile security outfit Lookout published a blog post explaining how it also supported the initiative, sharing a picture of its app’s warning message:

Lookout

This application appears to be legitimate, but it is not. It will run secretly in the background and send text messages, contacts, email, phone calls, videos, pictures, and location to a third party. This can cause sensitive information to be shared with a third party.

What to do

Lookout recommends that you remove this app immediately.

It sounds like a great start from Kaspersky and Lookout, and hopefully other security vendors will now also feel they need to put more effort into warning their users about stalkerware.

Galperin would clearly love to see that happen, but that’s not going to be the end of her campaign. She is also keen for Apple to display a clear alert that an iPhone has been jailbroken (a required step if iOS stalkerware is to be installed, and for companies in the business of selling stalkerware to be prosecuted.

The EFF does some great work, and I’m impressed to see them taking on this important issue.

But if you can’t wait for security firms and prosecutors to get their act together to battle the scourge of stalkerware, you may want to take some steps now to reduce the chances that you are being snooped upon. Be sure to read the EFF’s guide to surveillance self-defence.

Stay safe out there.

Graham Cluley Graham Cluley is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s when he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and is an international public speaker on the topic of computer security, hackers, and online privacy. Follow him on Twitter at @gcluley, or drop him an email.

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