#TECH: Nearly 31,000 mobile users targeted by stalkerware

IN 2023, Kaspersky data revealed that 31,031 individuals worldwide were affected by stalkerware — a 5.8 per cent year-on-year increase from 29,312 users affected in 2022.

The figures reverse the downward trend of 2021 and confirm that digital stalking continues to be a global problem.

One third (33 per cent) of respondents in Malaysia reported being stalked or suspected they were being stalked through a phone app, while 18 per cent reported being physically stalked.

Meanwhile, two out of every five respondents in Malaysia (44 per cent) are worried about being stalked online.

Over half of the respondents here believe it is acceptable to monitor their intimate partners' phones without their knowledge under certain circumstances.

Forty-five per cent said their partners have full access to their phones.

Fifty-six per cent also agreed to share their geolocation.

In general, 66 per cent agreed to share their password for streaming services.

According to the Kaspersky Security Network, last year, the top three countries with users most affected by digital stalking were Russia (9,890), Brazil (4,186) and India (2,492). Iran entered the top five in the previous year and remained there.

Compared to 2021, the top 10 affected countries have changed little.

While Germany dropped from seventh to 10th, Saudi Arabia (eighth in 2022) is not the most affected this year.

What is stalkerware

Stalkerware typically masquerades as legitimate anti-theft or parental control applications on smartphones, tablets, and computers, but in reality, they are very different.

Installed usually without consent or notification of the person being tracked, they provide a perpetrator with the means to gain control over a victim's life.

Stalkerware capabilities vary depending on the app.

The State of Stalkerware is an annual report by Kaspersky which aims to provide a better understanding of the number of people affected by digital stalking globally.

Stalking and violence

The spectrum of abuse is diverse, with over one-third (39 per cent) of respondents worldwide reporting of violence or abuse from a current or previous partner.

Kaspersky said that of those questioned for the report, 23 per cent revealed they have encountered some form of online stalking from someone they were recently dating. Furthermore, 40 per cent reported experiencing stalking or suspected themselves of being stalked.

On the other side, 12 per cent admitted to installing or setting parameters on their partner's phone, while 9.0 per cent acknowledged pressuring their partner to install monitoring apps.

Nevertheless, the notion of monitoring a partner without their awareness is disapproved by the majority of individuals (54 per cent), reflecting a prevailing sentiment against such behaviour.

Regarding attitudes toward consensually monitoring a partner's online activities, 45 per cent of respondents express disapproval, highlighting the significance of privacy rights.

Conversely, 27 per cent support full transparency in relationships, viewing consensual monitoring as appropriate, while 12 per cent deem it acceptable only when mutual agreement is reached.

According to Kaspersky's security and data privacy expert, David Emm, these findings highlight the delicate balance individuals strike between intimacy and safeguarding personal information.

"It's positive to observe increased caution, especially regarding sensitive data like passwords. The reluctance to share such critical access aligns with cybersecurity principles," he said.

"The willingness to share streaming service passwords and photos signifies a cultural shift, though individuals should recognise potential risks even in seemingly innocuous information sharing.

"These insights underscore the importance of fostering open communication within relationships, establishing clear boundaries, and promoting digital literacy. For security professionals, it reinforces the need for ongoing education on cybersecurity best practices and empowering individuals to make informed decisions about sharing personal information within relationships."

The fight against stalkerware needs partnerships

In most countries, stalkerware is not prohibited, but installing it on another individual's smartphone without their consent is illegal and punishable.

However, it is the perpetrator who will be held responsible, not the developer of the app.

Stalkerware is one element of tech-enabled abuse and often used in abusive relationships.

"The use of stalkerware or any tool to monitor someone else without their consent is a violation of privacy and a common tactic of abuse. This report demonstrates how abusive individuals use a wide range of monitoring tactics, including stalkerware and other applications that facilitate the sharing of personal information," said Safety Net Project's National Network to End Domestic Violence senior director Erica Olsen.

Commenting on the report findings, Refuge's head of Technology-Facilitated Abuse and Economic Empowerment Team, Emma Pickering, said: "The statistics highlighted in this report are really concerning, but we are sadly not surprised. Here at Refuge, we are seeing an alarming increase in survivors reporting concerns relating to stalkerware. As these statistics reveal, the issue of stalkerware is a widespread concern."

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