Although it is illegal in the United States to install stalkerware on an adult’s phone without their consent, marketing such apps is legal. Although many companies post disclaimers on their websites stating that their software is for legal purposes only, there have been a handful of convictions for installing spyware on the devices of oblivious adults.
Last September, in the first order of its kind, the Federal Trade Commission banned a company called Support King, which operated as SpyFone, from the surveillance industry for illegally collecting and sharing private information about individuals and for failing to implement basic security measures. The FTC said it would be “aggressive in seeking surveillance bans when companies and their executives blatantly invade our privacy.”
While many stalkerware apps are sold as parental monitoring tools to keep an eye on children, they offer the same capabilities as services that are more blatant about being designed to spy on spouses, says David Ruiz , senior privacy advocate at security group Malwarebytes. “There’s a whole family of apps out there that say they’ll, in quotes, solve your cheating spouse problem. Which isn’t just ridiculous, it’s dangerous.
Technology-facilitated abuse is a rapidly growing problem. Around 1.5 million Americans are stalked by some form of technology every year, according to the Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource Center, while UK charity Refuge from Domestic Violence has reported a 97% rise in the number of cases of abuse requiring specialized technical assistance between April 2020 and May 2021.
The charity’s tech abuse team said it worked with “countless” survivors whose abusers installed stalking software on their phones in an attempt to intimidate them, harass them and manipulate them.
“Hearing that these apps are being marketed directly to the authors is extremely concerning,” said Emma Pickering, technology abuse manager at Refuge. “Tech companies must act quickly to remove ads that give authors access to tools to read their partners’ messages or track locations without their knowledge or consent.
“We need to recognize that cyberbullying is dangerous and threatening behavior in the same way as street harassment.”