While it is against the law in the US to install stalkerware on an adult’s phone without permission, marketing such apps is legal. While many companies display disclaimers on their websites stating that their software is for legal purposes only, there have been a handful of convictions for installing spyware on unwitting adults’ devices.
Last September, in the first order of its kind, the Federal Trade Commission banned a company called Support King, which operated under the name SpyFone, from the surveillance industry for illegally collecting and sharing people’s personal information and failing to implement basic security measures. The FTC said it will be “aggressive in seeking surveillance bans when companies and their executives grossly violate our privacy.”
While many stalkerware apps are marketed as parental control tools to keep an eye on children, they offer the same capabilities as services more blatantly designed to spy on spouses, said David Ruiz, senior privacy attorney at the security group Malwarebytes. “There is a whole family of applications that say straight out that they will solve your cheating spouse problem without quoting quotes. Which is not only ridiculous, it is also dangerous.”
Technology-facilitated abuse is a rapidly growing problem. According to the Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource Center, approximately 1.5 million Americans are stalked through some form of technology each year, while the UK’s domestic violence charity Refuge reported a 97% increase in abuse cases requiring specialized technical support. support was needed between April 2020 and May 2021.
The charity’s tech abuse team said it works with “countless” survivors whose abusers installed stalkerware on their phones to intimidate, harass and manipulate them.
“To hear that these apps are being sold directly to perpetrators is extremely concerning,” said Emma Pickering, head of tech abuse at Refuge. “Tech companies must act quickly to remove ads that give perpetrators access to tools to read their partners’ messages or track locations without their knowledge or consent.
“We need to recognize that cyberstalking is dangerous and threatening behavior, just like stalking on the street is.”