Lianne thought that her relationship was perfect. She had met her partner in a London club, and he had quickly moved her and her two daughters into his home. Within six months they were engaged, and Lianne described her relationship as a fairytale. But one day, when she went to attach a file to an email using their household computer, her perfect relationship came crashing down.
“I found a file containing all of my email addresses with passwords, and every website I used with my password alongside it. At first I was in complete shock, then disbelief, and then anger. The more I thought about it the more I felt that I had been violated.”
Before Lianne discovered the document containing her passwords she had become concerned that her partner seemed to know things that she hadn’t disclosed to him — her whereabouts, where she had been, and her plans. She once confronted him, only for him to reply that he had seen what she had typed into her car’s satellite navigation. But the real explanation turned out to be much more troubling. Lianne’s partner had purchased stalkerware technology, which he had downloaded onto her phone.
“I felt so let down and betrayed,” she remembers. “Over the previous months I had noticed changes and more controlling behavior. I was confused about how he knew about my day, and discussions I had had. In some ways I felt relieved [to find out the truth], because it confirmed that I wasn’t imagining things, but I had also discovered that I was trapped in a controlling relationship. It scared me.”
Also known as "spouseware," stalkerware is an ominous and increasingly popular form of technology that allows users to monitor another person’s devices or digital movements. Apps or programs are now readily available to buy which allow in-depth access into an individual’s online activity, often via smartphones.
“Stalkerware technology is any type of technology that allows someone to keep tabs on an individual,” explains relationship and technology expert Michelle Drouin. “This could be anything from tracking locations to key strokes on a computer.”
Stalkerware is seen as not only an invasion of privacy but a serious form of technological abuse — and yet its popularity seems to be on the rise. Cybersecurity experts Kapersky have reported a 35% increase in stalkerware incidents in 2019, finding 37,532 unique users targeted by this type of technology. But in an increasingly digital world, the issue of intimate partners delving into our data might run much deeper than unwanted malware downloads.
“Stalkers don’t even have to use these specific technologies to watch someone," explains Drouin. “They can also keep tabs in ways that don’t involve any sort of add-on technology, such as turning on location sharing on a mobile device or checking past trip history on Uber. As our world becomes more connected there are more and more ways for individuals to track and control others.”
Whilst this worrying trend is most widespread in Russia, India, and Brazil, the US comes in fourth and the UK comes in eighth place for downloads of specific stalkerware apps, with 730 cases detected by Kapersky in 2019. In a world where we are increasingly reliant on our devices, recording deeply personal information and managing everything from our banking to our social calendar online, this news is undoubtedly concerning.
Significantly, domestic abuse experts suggest that the flourishing popularity of stalkerware could put women at enormous risk. In 2014 alone, UK support charity Refuge reported that they were contacted by nearly 1,000 domestic abuse victims whose partners or former partners had exploited technology in order to control and stalk them.
“My ex-partner would always be monitoring my phone and laptop – the slightest discovery would send him into a rage,” says Emily*, who escaped an abusive relationship in her late teens. “He would dial the local taxi firm to check what addresses I’d been to. He once went round to a house address that he didn’t recognize and banged on the door demanding to know who lived there and how they knew me. The idea of stalkerware terrifies me — if it had been widely accessible then, he definitely would have used it, not just to keep track of where I was and what I was doing but to find excuses to get angry and violent with me. I would have been further isolated from my loved ones and support network because I wouldn't have been able to message and ask for help.”
Stalkerware apps can be installed without the device owner’s knowledge, and many come with instructions of how to hide the app so that unsuspecting victims have no idea that their every online movement is being tracked. Abusers can install software by sending a link disguised as something more innocuous to their target, or by physically accessing devices. Individuals can even use their partner’s fingerprints while they sleep to unlock smartphones and download the damaging software.
“If your partner is suspicious of your activity, questions you about your whereabouts and actions, and asks to see your phone or computer to check your messages or phone records, these are red flags that they might be using or considering stalkerware technology,” advises Drouin. “As much of the stalkerware technology runs in the background of a device, it is very difficult to detect if there is stalkerware installed. However, the red flags to look out for would be that the battery is being drained quickly or there is a lag in the typing of messages. If you have suspicions about stalkerware on your device, you may want to scan your device to see if there is any unfamiliar software installed or other applications that you don't recognise.”
Although it can be quick (if not necessarily simple) for people to find out if they are the victims of stalkerware, the impact of realizing that they have been subject to this frightening behavior tends to be long-lasting. Lianne eventually managed to leave her fiancé and now works as a relationship counsellor, helping others who find themselves in similarly controlling situations.
“Anybody can say they love you, yet spying isn’t love. It’s obsessive and controlling behaviour, reflecting insecurity on the part of the perpetrator,” she says. “Controlling, secretive, and spying behaviour is mental abuse and should not be tolerated.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.