How could her partner know where she is every day? Why does his girlfriend know who he’s messaging? The answer could be a disturbing new technology that’s fuelling a new wave of violence across the globe. The worst thing? It’s as easy as downloading an app.

This app can install violence

Consumer surveillance and privacy are hot topics. Not only because they’re the cornerstone of our human rights, but now digital tech is pressing the fast forward button on spying techniques. One dangerous software, fuelling a new wave of gender violence, is stalkerware.

Spouseware. Legal Spyware. Stalkerware. It has many names, but the premise is simple. Stalkerware is software used to secretly spy on another person’s private life via a smart device. Usually installed secretly on mobile phones by co-called ‘friends’, paranoid partners (hence the spouseware title) and others, stalkerware tracks everything from the victim’s physical location and internet activity, to text messages and phone calls to friends. Even though it’s sometimes defined as legal spyware, it’s anything but. Victims can’t spot it too. Meanwhile, stalkers are accessing a wide range of personal data, and it’s having bad repercussions for today’s relationships.

A new form of relationship violence

Stalkerware is on the rise. In 2019, Kaspersky detected a 67 percent year-on-year increase of stalkerware on users’ mobile devices globally; Germany, Italy and France were the most hit countries in Europe. Perhaps more shockingly, early data suggests the situation didn’t improve in 2020. Alessandra Pauncz, Executive Director of WWP European Network, highlights how dangerous this threat is, “The effects of cyber-violence on women and girls are devastating because they’re part of a continuum of violence that deprives them of their freedom.”

It’s fuelling a new type of violence across the globe, in which people take away their partner’s freedom – in more ways than one. But aside from violating privacy, for victims and their abusers, there are other dangers. As a form of malware – short for “malicious software,” a type of computer program designed to infect a user’s computer and inflict harm – these programs can expose the victims’ data and breach protection tech, increasing the chances of their device getting infected by other malware.

It might sound like attackers are predominantly men, but Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, notes that “this is not just a ‘men spying on women’ issue.” From former spouses spying on people through internet-connect thermostats to men being outed as gay, Eva and her team have seen all manner of stalkerware victims and cases.

Fighting for online privacy and data protection

Before stalkerware hit the mainstream, Eva was leading the fightback. She was outraged by a hacker who abused women then threatened to compromise their devices if they spoke out. Now she’s an influential voice in the fight against stalkerware, helping thousands of victims get their privacy back. Watch her story, featured in our series Defenders of Digital.

Education can combat stalkerware

Stalkerware isn’t the easiest enemy to spot, but it starts with education. As Alfonso Ramirez, General Manager at Kaspersky Spain says, “It’s quite hard to fight against stalkerware using only tech tools. However, it would really help if practitioners and users are aware stalkerware exists, know how to recognize the signs of this software being installed on their devices and what to do next.”

As awareness rises, with Eva and others leading the charge, new global initiatives to fight back are cropping up, like DeStalk. Created by Kaspersky and NGO partners, DeStalk is an EU-wide project designed to educate people, professionals and the government on how to spot stalkers and deal with them.

We have a gender violence pandemic on our hands. Help fight stalkerware. Check out Stop Stalkerware to educate yourself and your loved ones.