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Technology Firms and Victim Advocacy Groups Launch Coalition Against Stalkerware

Stalkerware is a growing social problem with potentially dire personal consequences. It is a complex issue with no simple solution -- but ten organizations have come together to create the global Coalition Against Stalkerware to provide victim support and cybersecurity expertise.

The founding organizations are Avira, Electronic Frontier Foundation, European Network for the Work with Perpetrators of Domestic Violence, G DATA Cyber Defense, Kaspersky, Malwarebytes, National Network to End Domestic Violence, NortonLifeLock, Operation Safe Escape and WEISSER RING.

There are three primary problems involved with stalkerware. The first is that there is no simple technical definition. It is basically mobile spyware, and not all spyware is illegal. The second is there is no immediately obvious legislation banning its use. There have been very few prosecutions. In October 2019, the FTC reached a settlement with Retina-X Studios (developer of PhoneSheriff, MobileSpy, and TeenSafe), saying it had found multiple violations of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the Federal Trade Commission Act. The FTC could not fine the company, and the settlement simply prohibits the company from developing, promoting or advertising the apps unless significant changes are made.

There are several state laws that focus more directly against stalkerware, and it could be possible to prosecute the installers of stalkerware in some circumstances under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. However, there is no overriding federal anti-stalkerware legislation.

The third problem is that it is not always easy for victims of stalkerware to report the abuse. Some of the issues are discussed by Malwarebytes in a related blog. Even though the use of stalkerware has led to serious physical abuse and even death, Maureen Curtis, VP for the criminal justice and court programs for Operation Safe Horizon, comments, "Some survivors don't want criminal prosecution -- they want the [violence] to stop, and they might think that contacting the police will escalate [the situation]," She said that many survivors also have to consider the consequences of having their abuser arrested or sent to prison.

Technically, the issue is similar to potentially unwanted programs (PUPs). It would be relatively easy for the anti-malware industry to detect stalkerware -- but difficult for them to do anything about it. Firstly, the app itself may not be illegal. It is the use made of stalkerware that is the danger and possibly illegal. Detecting it, reporting it, and definitely removing it could tip the aggressor and escalate the danger to the victim. Nevertheless, comments Malwarebytes online privacy expert David Ruiz, "For years, Malwarebytes has detected and warned users about the potentially dangerous capabilities of stalkerware, an invasive threat that can rob individuals of their expectation of, and right to privacy."

Kaspersky's 'State of Stalkerware in 2019' report (PDF) points out that there has been a 373% increase in its detections of stalkerware from January 2019 to August 2019 compared to the same period in 2018. During the first eight months of 2019, 37,532 users encountered stalkerware at least once -- a 35% increase from 27,798 in the same period of 2018. It has found 380 variants of stalkerware in the wild in 2019 -- an increase of 31% over 2018.

The Coalition Against Stalkerware has launched the Stop Stalkerware website to help victims of stalkerware. While the technology industry can help in the fight against stalkerware, victims need personal help rather than just technology. "Just like the abuse it can enable," warns Ruiz, "stalkerware also proliferates away from public view, leaving its victims and survivors in isolation, unheard and unhelped. Forming and fighting together with the Coalition against Stalkerware is the next, necessary step in stopping this digital threat -- a collaborative approach steered by the promise of enabling the safe use of technology for everyone, everywhere." 

"It is important for cybersecurity vendors and advocacy organizations to work together," adds Vyacheslav Zakorzhevsky, head of anti-malware research at Kaspersky, describing the purpose of the Coalition Against Stalkerware. "The IT security industry gives its input by improving detection of stalkerware and better notifying users of this threat to their privacy. Meanwhile service and advocacy organizations directly work with victims of domestic violence, know their pain points and requests, and can guide our work. So, acting together, shoulder to shoulder, we will be capable of assisting survivors through technical expertise and capacity building,"

Related: Mobile Malware and Mobile Attackers are Getting More Sophisticated 

Related: NSO Group: Israeli Firm Accused of Cyberespionage 

Related: Simjacker: SIM Card Attack Used to Spy on Mobile Phone Users 

Related: Mexican Privacy Watchdog Criticizes Government Over Spyware

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.