Creepware: how to spot covert stalking tech that allows others to access your emails, texts and photos

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Amy Beecham
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A worrying new report from cyber security experts Norton has found a rise in “creepware”, covert stalking apps that a growing number of people are installing on their partner’s device.

There has been an alarming rise in women being stalked online since the pandemic began. New research from Cyber Safety leaders Norton found a 63% increase in devices infected with stalkerware between September 2020 and May 2021.

Stalkerware – or creepware – refers to commercially available technology that can be installed on a device to monitor activity without the user’s knowledge. This goes beyond checking publicly available social media profiles, and involves accessing private information, such as text messages, phone calls, direct messages, emails and photos. 

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Awareness of this kind of invasive software is low, with 65% of people saying they’ve never heard of it. But this new report paints a picture of a worrying trend we need to pay attention to.

“We issue warnings to customers alerting them of potential stalkerware apps on their devices, and our latest threat telemetry shows that use of this invasive technology is steadily climbing, amounting to more than 250,000 compromised devices,” says Kevin Roundy, stalkerware specialist within Norton Labs.

Norton’s research found that nearly one in 10 people who have been in a romantic relationship admitted to using stalkerware or creepware to keep tabs on a partner. 

Even more alarming, 38% of people believed that their significant other was at least somewhat likely to plant an app on their device to monitor them. Men were also found to be more likely than women to track a current or former partner’s physical activity online.

There are ways to protect against creepware. “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, ” says Roundy.

“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.”

Regular apps could be misused for stalking. “Even seemingly innocent apps could be used maliciously”, states the report. “For example, if someone has the login for your device locator app, then they can track your location too. Apps that backup media, text messages, and call logs can likewise save your location remotely through your cloud storage, so be sure to keep your backup access secure. Covert parental control apps can be used to monitor your device, and often are hidden or camouflaged behind a seemingly innocuous app name on a device.”

It’s important to always use strong passwords, as stalkerware often requires physical access to a device to be installed.

“Keep yourself and your devices safe by using strong password and multi-factor identification where available. Avoid sharing your password and ensure you regularly change it, especially if you are concerned about spying by someone who knows your passwords,” the experts advise. 

If you, or someone you know, is concerned about tech enabled abuse, spying, monitoring, or stalking, trust your instincts, and find a safe way to learn about your local resources and options. Helpful resources include the Coalition Against Stalkerware, The Cyber Helpline - a free, confidential helpline for individuals who have been a victim of cybercrime - and The National Stalking Helpline.  

Images: Getty

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Amy Beecham

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