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Stalkerware apps becoming normalised among young people

Data in a new report appears to show that dangerous stalkerware apps are becoming normalised in younger age groups

Around 7% of Britons who have been in a romantic relationship admit to using stalkerware or other methods of stalking, such as device and browser history snooping to keep track of their partner online, according to a study conducted as part of NortonLifeLock’s 2021 Norton cyber safety insights report, with usage of such malicious apps trending higher among the under-40s.

Indeed, over half (55%) of Gen Z and Millennial respondents to the study – which was conducted by Harris Poll in February 2021 – said that they had stalked an ex or current partner online by checking in on them without their knowledge or consent, over triple the percentage among the over-40s, and younger people also exhibited an alarming tendency to think of such behaviour as unproblematic.

Additionally, 38% of 18-39 year-olds currently in a relationship believed their partner was “at least somewhat likely” to plant stalkerware on their device, and 35% believed it was harmless to stalk a partner online, compared to just 9% of over-40s. Younger people were also much more likely to agree online stalking was warranted if one or both people in the relationship had cheated on one another, or were suspected of doing so, pointing to a worrying normalisation of such activity in younger age groups.

“Increasingly, online behaviours, such as tracking and monitoring, are either accepted as normal, or are a ‘grey area’. It seems that thresholds of many normalised online behaviours are now higher than the thresholds for criminality in cyber abuse,” said Emma Short, associate professor in psychology at De Montfort University Leicester, and a trustee of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.

“This is extremely concerning as it creates a higher tolerance of risk amongst the public and an acceptance of harm,” she said. “Additionally, this means that serious cases can be missed, or dangerous stalking can escalate quickly.

“The experience of our movements being visible to others is no longer strange, we routinely track our friends and family and in turn are visible to them, but early controlling and stalking behaviours can start here,” said Short. “It’s very hard to close the door once access has been established and the consequences of cyber stalking can be profound, affecting all areas of functioning and health.

“Many people report a sense of helplessness and loss of control due to the bombardment of communications, the shattered integrity of their networks and the disruption this causes. This is often exacerbated by the poor response they receive from others due to the normalisation of many of these behaviours. Cyber stalking is a crime, a crime that can devastate and it’s crucial that we challenge the worrying level of acceptance that this report identifies.”

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NortonLifeLock, which is a member of the Coalition Against Stalkerware – a group dedicated to fighting back against online stalkers and abusers – gathers data on such apps through its service – and warns users if it finds potential stalkerware apps on their devices.

In a strong correlation with data previously presented by the Coalition, it said it had found a 63% uptick in the number of infected devices between September 2020 and May 2021, with more than 250,000 devices compromised.

Kevin Roundy, technical director and stalkerware specialist within NortonLifeLock’s research division, said: “Stalkerware is commercially available technology that can be installed on a device to monitor activity without the user’s knowledge. It usually requires someone to have physical access to a device to install it. Stalkerware often consumes a lot of power and data so may give itself away by slowing down device performance, draining battery life or increasing data usage.

“If you’re worried about stalkerware it’s worth checking your device settings and permissions to see if any unknown apps have access to things like your location and microphone or looking to see if there are any apps on your device that you do not recognise.”

Roundy added that people can avoid other forms of online stalking through social media, for example, by being careful about how much information they share online, such as location data, photos of their car that include its numberplate, or answers to Facebook quizzes, which frequently match up to online account security questions.

“Knowing how to manage your online footprint is key to staying safe. Simple steps include regularly reviewing the apps on your devices, removing any that are unrecognised or unwanted, and always check the settings of each. Examine which have access to your information such as your location, microphone, or camera so you choose when and what to share, as well as who with,” he said.

“Across social media, ensure your information and content can only be viewed by the people you want to, and be aware of what is being posted about you and how far reaching these posts can be – you can often opt for settings that limit who gets access to this information.”

Protection against stalkerware

General guidance on how to protect yourself against stalkerware can be found at the Coalition’s website, alongside resources for people who may also be in more dangerous abusive or controlling relationships.

If the latter applies to you it is important that you do not try to remove stalkerware from your device because many programs will contain features that alert your abuser to tampering. Instead, try to contact the police or a victim support organisation. In the UK, resources are available from the National Domestic Violence Helpline or the National Stalking Helpline. Also, Citizens Advice maintains a list of further organisations, including resources for male victims and LGBTQ+ people.

When seeking help try to avoid using the compromised device. If you can, access assistance on a computer in your local library, or borrow a trusted friend or neighbour’s device.

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