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Use of spyware apps linked to domestic abuse soars in lockdown

The rise in domestic violence during the pandemic has been linked to increase use of stalkerware apps by abusers

The use of spyware or stalkerware is up by more than 50% over January and February of this year since March, with a clear link to a spike in domestic abuse and violence since the UK went into lockdown.

Stalkerware is best defined as unethical software that, when installed on a target device, gives its user a number of tools that enable them to exert control over their victims. These can include tracking their victim’s location, accessing personal data such as photos and videos, intercepting emails, texts and app-based communications, eavesdropping on phone calls, and recording conversations.

Referred to as a “shadow epidemic” by UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, domestic violence has increased dramatically during lockdown.

In the UK, the stringent lockdown restrictions enacted at the beginning of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, coupled with mixed or absent messaging around what people could and could not do from Boris Johnson’s government, left many people feeling they could not flee from abusive or controlling partners.

Women and children’s support charity Refuge recently reported that calls to its helpline have increased by two-thirds, and visits to its websites almost 10 times since March.

According to cyber security firm Avast, its services have protected more than 1,400 people in the UK from stalkerware since March, with the monthly average up 83% on January and February.

“Stalkerware is a growing category of domestic malware with disturbing and dangerous implications. While spyware and infostealers seek to steal personal data, stalkerware is different: it steals the physical and online freedom of the victim,” said Avast CISO Jaya Baloo.

“Usually installed secretly on mobile phones by so-called friends, jealous spouses, ex-partners, and even concerned parents, stalkerware tracks the physical location of the victim, monitors sites visited on the internet, text messages and phone calls, undermining a person’s individual liberty and online freedom.

“Across the globe, it’s been reported that the number of domestic violence cases have consistently increased during lockdown, and that tallies with what we’re seeing in this digital threat. We’re committed to doing all that we can to protect our users from this rising threat,” she said.

The increase in stalkerware is clearly not limited to the UK, with Avast collecting reports from more than 43,000 other users worldwide, including over 3,000 in both Brazil and the US.

There are a number of steps you can take to safeguard your device from the attentions of an abusive partner, of which probably the most simple is to secure your smartphone against unauthorised physical access – a 2017 Pew Research study claimed that 25% of smartphone owners have no lock screen protection, and 50% use neither thumbprints nor ID codes to secure their devices.

Setting this feature up may prevent someone from gaining your device to install stalkerware. If possible, it may also be worth installing a mobile antivirus service – most reputable ones will identify stalkerware as a potentially unwanted programme, or PUP.

For those already in an abusive or deteriorating relationship, it is important to understand that you may be at greater risk from stalkerware, that it may already be present on your device, and that removing it is a big no-no as it will almost certainly alert your abuser.

If you discover stalkerware on your device, immediately contact local law enforcement or a local victim support organisation – including, in the UK, the likes of the National Domestic Violence Helpline or the National Stalking HelplineCitizens Advice maintains a list of other organisations, including resources for male victims and LGBTQ+ people.

If seeking help, avoid using the compromised device if at all possible, rather try to use an anonymous, uncompromised device such as a library computer, or a friend or neighbour’s phone.

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