While it is illegal in the United States to install tracking software on adult cell phones without consent, it is legal to market such apps. While many companies display disclaimers on their websites stating that their software is only used for lawful purposes, a few have been convicted of installing spyware on devices of unwitting adults.
Last September, the FTC’s first order of its kind Banned a company called Support King, which operates under the name SpyFone, illegally obtaining and sharing people’s private information from surveillance businesses and failing to implement basic security measures. The FTC said it would “aggressively seek to prohibit surveillance” when companies and their executives seriously violate our privacy.
David Ruiz, a senior privacy advocate at security group Malwarebytes, said that while many stalkerware apps are sold as parental monitoring tools to monitor children, they offer the same functionality as services more blatantly designed to spy on spouses. “There’s a whole slew of apps out there that say they will, cite without citation, and address your spouse’s cheating problem. Not only is it ridiculous — it’s dangerous.”
Technology-enabled abuse is a rapidly growing problem. According to the Centre for Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource, around 1.5 million Americans are stalked through some form of technology each year, while UK domestic violence charity Refuge reports that from April 2020 to 2020, people in need of specialist tech support will be stalked. The number of abuse cases increased by 97%. May 2021.
The charity’s tech abuse team said it worked with “countless” survivors whose abusers installed stalkerware on their phones to intimidate, harass and manipulate them.
“It’s very concerning to hear that these apps are being marketed directly to perpetrators,” said Emma Pickering, head of technology abuse at Refuge. “Tech companies must act quickly to remove those apps that enable perpetrators without their knowledge or consent. access tools to read messages from their partners or track ads for location.
“We have to recognize that cyberstalking is dangerous and threatening behavior, just like stalking on the street.”