Have YOU been duped by a spyware app? Use of creepy apps that let attackers SPY on you and steal your photos and messages increased by 93% during lockdown, experts warn

  • Researchers found that over 4,500 UK users had some kind of spyware installed
  • This included stalkerware that gives an abuser access to personal information
  • Security firm Avast say they are working to remove these apps from app stores 
  • Stalkerware can give an abuser access to location information, messages, private photos and even eavesdrop on phone calls from a remote location 

The use of apps that let attackers spy on you and steal your personal photos and private messages has increased by 93 per cent since the first lockdown, experts warn.

Software from security firm Avast found over 4,585 users in the UK had apps capable of spying on them and stealing information, known as spyware and stalkerware. 

Internationally 165,049 users of Avast security software had these apps installed between January and February this year – a 93 per cent increase on the same time in 2020. 

Stalkerware is a type of unethical software that allows people to track someone’s location, without the victim’s knowledge or consent. It is often installed by jealous partners, ex-partners or other people with access to a device.

It gives the perpetrator access to a victim’s personal photos, videos, emails, texts and app communications such as WhatsApp and Facebook, as well as eavesdrop on phone calls and make covert recordings of conversations remotely.

Software from security firm Avast found over 4,585 users in the UK had apps capable of spying on them and stealing information, known as spyware and stalkerware. Stock image

WHAT IS ‘STALKERWARE?

Stalkerware is software that allows you to spy on someone’s phone or tablet.

They are often advertised to parents who wish to track the online activity of their child, or bosses looking to snoop on their employees.

Typically, stalkware allows you to remotely intercept messages, photos, browsing history, GPS coordinates and even phone call data.

They work by pairing an online account to an app that is installed on the device you wish to spy on.

Users can then remotely access the phone’s data without the owner knowing they are under surveillance.

Stalkerware apps are technically legal, but have stirred controversy in the past when people have employed them for illicit spying. 

Jaya Baloo, Chief Information Security Officer, Avast, said the growth in these types of apps poses a serious concern as they are a form of ‘tech abuse’ that ‘takes away the physical and online freedom of the victim.’

Stalkerware is often installed secretly on mobile phones by ‘friend, jealous spouses and ex-partners,’ according to Baloo.

This type of software ‘tracks the physical location of the victim, monitors sites visited, phone calls and text messages,’ he explained, adding attackers use it to ‘undermine 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, Avast said.

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 in the first three months of lockdown. 

Latest figures from the NHS also reveal there has been a 350% 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, said stalkerware technology gives abusers another way to exert control over their victims whether in lockdown or not.

‘Unfortunately, whilst 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,’ Keeper said.

Avast said it was committed to identifying and removing the threat of stalkerware. 

Jaya Baloo, Chief Information Security Officer, Avast, said the growth in these types of apps poses a serious concern as they are a form of ‘tech abuse’ that ‘takes away the physical and online freedom of the victim.’ Stock image

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.

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.’

TIPS TO PREVENT, SPOT AND REMOVE STALKERWARE

Secure your phone against all unauthorised physical access: ensure your phone or device uses two factor authentication such as a pin code and a second form of identity confirmation such as an email backup or thumbprint.

Install a reliable antivirus product on your mobile phone: a good mobile antivirus will treat stalkerware as a PUP (potentially unwanted programme) and give you the option to remove it.

How to spot the signs you have stalkerware installed:

  • 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.

How to manually remove stalkerware from your phone:

Reboot your phone into safe-mode: hold down your phone’s power button to see your Power off and Restart options. Long-press the Power off option and the Reboot to safe-mode option will appear. Tap OK.

Remove any suspicious apps: once rebooted in safe mode, open up your Settings and tap Apps or Apps & notifications. Sort through your apps and look for anything you don’t recognise.

Remove any Malicious Apps: tap Uninstall to remove it from your device. If you’re not sure if an app is malicious, search for the name of the app on the internet to see if other people have shared any issues with it.

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