While it’s against the law in the US to install stalkerware on an adult’s phone without consent, marketing such apps is legal. Although many companies display disclaimers on their websites stating that their software is intended for legal purposes only, there have been a handful of convictions for installing spyware on unknowing adults’ devices.
Last September, in the first order of its kind, the Federal Trade Commission banned a company called Support King, which operated under the name SpyFone, from the surveillance business for illegally harvesting and sharing people’s private information and failing to implement basic security measures. The FTC said it will be “aggressive about seeking surveillance bans when companies and their executives egregiously invade our privacy.”
While many stalkerware apps are sold as parental monitoring tools for keeping an eye on children, they provide the same capabilities as services that are more blatant about being designed to spy on spouses, says David Ruiz, senior privacy advocate at the security group Malwarebytes. “There’s a whole family of applications out there that straight up says they will, quote unquote, solve your problem of a cheating spouse. Which is not just ludicrous—it’s dangerous.”
Technology-facilitated abuse is a rapidly growing problem. Around 1.5 million Americans are stalked through some form of technology every year, according to the Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource Center, while the UK domestic violence charity Refuge reported a 97% increase in the number of abuse cases requiring specialist tech support between April 2020 and May 2021.
The charity’s tech abuse team said it works with “countless” survivors whose abusers installed stalkerware on their phones in a bid to intimidate, harass, and manipulate them.
“To hear that these apps are being marketed directly to perpetrators is extremely concerning,” says Emma Pickering, tech abuse lead at Refuge. “Tech companies must act swiftly to remove ads which enable perpetrators to access tools to read their partners’ messages or track locations without their knowledge or consent.
“We must recognize that cyberstalking is dangerous and threatening behavior in the same way stalking on the street is.”