Mobile stalker ware

April 25, 2024

Our phones and the data they contain offer an intimate look into our personal lives. They hold our most sensitive information, from personal messages and photos to detailed location history. 

Unfortunately, the rise of mobile stalker ware threatens our most basic right to privacy, turning our personal devices into tools for unwanted surveillance and stalking. Let’s discuss what mobile stalker ware is, the laws surrounding it, and what you can do to keep it at bay. 

What is mobile stalker ware?

Mobile stalker ware refers to tools such as software programs and apps that 

allow individuals to secretly monitor activities on someone else's mobile device. It’s a common tactic used by abusers to keep tabs on their victims. They use stalker ware to invade an individual's privacy, monitor their communications, intimidate them, and exert control over them. 

With mobile stalker ware, abusers can monitor web searches, geolocation, text messages, keystrokes, photos, videos, voice calls, and more. This can be done without the victim's knowledge or by forcing them to install or share personal information against their will. 

Mobile stalker ware is a form of digital abuse that carries severe psychological and physical consequences for victims and is all too easy for perpetrators to hide behind. 

Use cases and misuse

There are two categories of mobile stalker ware - legal surveillance tools that are illegally exploited and illegal tools that are marketed as a means to track or monitor someone without their consent. 

The former are commercial software packages that are available off-the-shelf or through app stores. They’re typically marketed as tools for monitoring employees or children. Parents use these apps to keep an eye on what their kids are up to online or set limits to keep them safe from dangers lurking on the internet. Companies rely on them to monitor productivity, track workflows, and ensure resources are used appropriately. 

While these types of surveillance tools are legal in the US, it’s far too easy for abusers to exploit them for malicious purposes. If an abuser put one of these apps on someone else’s phone, they would gain access to a large amount of information regarding the life and activities of their target.

Illegal surveillance tools are also becoming increasingly common. They secretly spy on someone’s device while hidden in the background or disguised as something seemingly harmless, like a calendar or calculator app. 

Even though Google banned ads for this type of software in 2020, a simple search will pull up many of these apps even today. And, while some stalker ware apps like PhoneSpector and Highster are being taken down, others keep popping up, perpetuating the problem.

The laws surrounding mobile stalker ware

In many countries there isn't a specific law that bans the development or distribution of stalker ware software. However putting this type of software on someone else's phone without their permission is typically considered illegal. 

In the US it’s illegal to digitally monitor anyone over the age of 18 without their consent, regardless of who owns the phone. This includes a range of activities, such as monitoring social media, texts, and calls. 

When surveillance software is used without consent in the US, wiretapping laws are invoked. These laws aim to protect against unauthorized digital eavesdropping, except in cases authorized by law enforcement. 

Federal wiretapping laws also prohibit the sale of spy software that’s primarily designed to record private conversations. However, as we mentioned earlier, many of these surveillance apps get around this law by branding themselves as tools for keeping an eye on kids' online activities or making sure employees are using work devices properly.

Laws surrounding stalker ware also vary throughout the US. In California, for example, secretly recording phone conversations without all parties' consent violates state law. The same can’t be said for New York, though, where you can record phone conversations as long as one person involved consents. However, using stalker ware for GPS tracking in New York without consent breaches state privacy laws. 

As you can see, the laws surrounding mobile stalker ware are nuanced and vary by jurisdiction. The key takeaway is the importance of informed consent. Using stalker ware without consent or with coercion is a serious violation of our privacy rights. Hopefully, in the years to come, we’ll see the government at both the state and federal levels take a firmer stance on mobile stalker ware. 

How to detect and remove mobile stalker ware

If you suspect that mobile stalker ware might be installed on your phone or someone is monitoring your accounts, it's important to take action. 

Signs of stalker ware infection

Fortunately, stalker ware can be challenging to conceal on Android and iOS devices due to their operating system design. This means that tampering with the OS basics can be detected by a malware scanning tool, by paying attention to specific system behaviors and permissions and routinely checking the device's system and network activity. If you're worried your device might have stalker ware, keep an eye out for these signs:

Removal of stalker ware

If you suspect there is stalker ware on your phone, trust your instincts and take these steps:

Remember, safety comes first when dealing with stalker ware. These apps can see everything on your device, including attempts to remove them, so be cautious. Don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support if you need it. 

Advocacy and support

Dealing with mobile stalker ware can be deeply personal and distressing. If you find yourself in this situation, remember that you don’t have to go it alone. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are in your corner, fighting for your digital rights and privacy.

The Coalition Against Stalker ware is another key player made up of various organizations and experts who all work together to help people navigate the challenges brought on by stalker ware. 

If mobile stalker ware is intruding on your life, remember these groups are here to help. They can provide you with the information and support you need to protect your privacy and stay safe.

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