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Stalkerware and spyware app use increases by 93 per cent since lockdowns began

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The use of stalkerware and spyware apps has skyrocketed in the UK since the first lockdown began in spring 2020.

Both types of apps are unethical forms of tracking software. Spyware is a form of malware that tries to keep itself hidden under the disguise of another app or program downloaded by the user and sends information to a malicious agent. Stalkerware is usually secretly downloaded onto a victim's device by someone they know.

There has been a 93 per cent increase in the use of both spyware and stalkerware apps in the UK over the past year since lockdown measures were first introduced.

Avast, a provider of digital security and privacy products, revealed the shocking statistic – drawn from analysis of its own operating data – to highlight the growing threat of stalkerware apps during what is National Stalking Awareness Week.

According to Avast, the volume of stalkerware and spyware apps in January and February 2021 indicated a 93 per cent increase on the same period in 2020 before Covid-19 restrictions were introduced. Since that time, Avast has protected over 4,585 users in the UK from apps capable of spying and 165,049 users around the world.

In this National Stalking Awareness Week, Avast hopes to draw attention to the rise of stalkerware: unethical software that allows a person to track someone else's location without the victim's knowledge or consent. Stalkerware gives the perpetrator access to a victim's personal photos, videos, emails, texts and app communications such as WhatsApp and Facebook, as well as the ability to eavesdrop on phone calls and make covert recordings of conversations over the internet.

Jaya Baloo, chief information security officer, Avast, said: "The growth in stalkerware and spyware poses a huge concern. Stalkerware is a form of tech abuse, an increasing threat which takes away the physical and online freedom of the victim. Usually installed secretly on mobile phones by so-called friends, jealous spouses and ex-partners, stalkerware tracks the physical location of the victim, monitors [web]sites visited, phone calls and text messages, undermining a person's online freedom and individual liberty."

Alarmingly, the growth in stalkerware seems to echo the increase in domestic abuse cases across the UK since lockdown measures came into force. Refuge, a national charity in England providing specialist support for women and children experiencing domestic abuse, reported that calls to its helpline increased by two-thirds (66 per cent) in the first three months of lockdown, with visits to its website increasing by an incredible 950 per cent. Latest figures from the NHS also reveal there has been a 350 per cent increase in the number of people searching online for domestic abuse support during lockdown compared to the previous year.

Jane Keeper, director of operations, Refuge, added: "This technology gives abusers another way to exert control over their victims whether we are in lockdown or not. Unfortunately, while Avast's figures are concerning, we fear they are just the tip of the iceberg – many cases will go undetected. This is why Refuge is partnering with Avast to help tackle this disturbing trend head on."

In 2019, Avast mobile threat researchers identified and worked to remove eight stalkerware apps from the Google Play Store. Refuge and Avast are both members of the Coalition Against Stalkerware, a cross-industry organisation committed to fighting domestic abuse, stalking, and harassment by addressing the use of stalkerware and raising public awareness about this issue.

Baloo said: "We're proud to be working with members of the Coalition to raise awareness of tech abuse, educate people on how to address it and constantly to improve ways to prevent this threat."

For anyone who may be concerned about stalkerware on their device and wishes to protect themselves, Avast recommends securing your phone against unauthorised physical access using two-factor authentication (2FA) such as a pin code and a second form of identity confirmation such as an email backup or thumbprint, as well as installing a reliable antivirus product on the mobile phone. Avast says a good mobile antivirus will treat stalkerware as a PUP (potentially unwanted programme) and give you the option to remove it.

Typical warning signs about stalkerware installed on a device include:

  • You notice your device's performance is suddenly and unexpectedly worse: you may notice slow-downs or more frequent crashes or freezes.
  • Your settings have changed without your consent: if you suddenly have a new browser homepage, new icons on your desktop, a different default search engine, or other changes that you didn't make, it might be due to stalkerware.
  • You get odd messages: a sudden flood of pop-ups or error messages from programmes that always worked fine before may indicate spyware.
  • You have unexplained calls on your bill.
  • The abuser has had physical access to your device.
  • The abuser knows things about what you're doing, where you're going and who you've been communicating with.

If you think you may be at risk from domestic abuse, information and help is available from Refuge.

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