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The state of stalkerware in 2020
[Image: digital_eye_stalker_abstract-1200x600.jpg]

The state of stalkerware in 2020 (PDF)

Main findings

Kaspersky’s data shows that the scale of the stalkerware issue has not improved much in 2020 compared to the last year:
  • The number of people affected is still high. In total, 53,870 of our mobile users were affected globally by stalkerware in 2020. Keeping in mind the big picture, these numbers only include Kaspersky users, and the total global numbers will be higher. Some affected users may use another cybersecurity solution on their devices, while some do not use any solution at all.
  • With more than 8,100 users affected globally, Nidb is the most used stalkerware sample, according to our 2020 stats. This sample is used to sell a number of different stalkerware products such as iSpyoo, TheTruthSpy and Copy9 among others.
  • In terms of geographic spread, we see a largely consistent trend emerging: Russia, Brazil, and the United States of America (USA) remain the most affected countries globally, and they are the three leading countries in 2020.
  • In Europe, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom (UK) are the top three most-affected countries respectively.
Introduction and methodology

Technology has enabled people to connect more than ever before. We can choose to digitally share our lives with our partner, family, and friends regardless of how far we are physically. Yet, we are also seeing a rise in software that enables users to remotely spy on another person’s life via their digital device, without the affected user giving their consent or being notified.

The software, known as stalkerware, is commercially available to everyone with access to the internet. The risks of stalkerware can go beyond the online sphere and enter the physical world. The Coalition Against Stalkerware warns that stalkerware “may facilitate intimate partner surveillance, harassment, abuse, stalking, and/or violence.” Stalkerware can also operate in stealth mode, meaning that there is no icon displayed on the device to indicate its presence and it is not visible to the affected user. The majority of affected users do not even know this type of software exists. This means they cannot protect themselves, online or offline, especially as the perpetrator using stalkerware usually knows their victim personally.

In recent years, Kaspersky has been actively working with partners to end the use of stalkerware. In 2019, we created a special alert that notifies users if stalkerware is installed on their phones. Following that we became one of ten founding members of the Coalition Against Stalkerware. We also published our first full report on the state of stalkerware in the same year to understand the scale of the problem.

This report continues to examine the issue of stalkerware and presents new statistics from 2020, in comparison to our previous data. The data in this report has been taken from aggregated threat statistics obtained from the Kaspersky Security Network. The Kaspersky Security Network is dedicated to processing cybersecurity-related data streams from millions of voluntary participants around the world. All received data is anonymized. To calculate our statistics, we review the consumer line of Kaspersky’s mobile security solutions.

The issue of, and the story behind, stalkerware

Stalkerware is software that is commercially available to everyone with access to the internet. It is used to spy remotely on another person via their device, without the affected user giving their consent or being notified. Stalkerware operates in stealth mode, meaning that there is no icon displayed on the device indicating its presence, and it is not visible to the affected user. Therefore, the Coalition Against Stalkerware defines stalkerware as software which “may facilitate intimate partner surveillance, harassment, abuse, stalking, and/or violence”.

The dimension of cyberviolence

According to a report by the European Institute for Gender Equality, “seven in ten women in Europe who have experienced cyberstalking have also experience at least one form of physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner”. Echoing these findings, experts from non-profit organizations (NPOs) that help domestic abuse survivors and victims emphasize that cyberstalking is also a form of violence. Just as with physical, psychological, and economic violence, an abuser can use surveillance to obtain complete control of their victim/survivor[sup][1][/sup] and stay in charge of the situation.

Using stalkerware, the extent of control held by the abuser can be immense. Depending on the type installed, stalkerware may have a variety of functions to intrude into the victim’s privacy. With the software’s help, an abuser can:
  • Read anything the surveilled person types – logging each keystroke on the device, including credentials to any kind of services such as banking applications, online shops and social networks, etc.
  • Know where they are – by tracking a person’s movements with GPS, in real time
  • Hear what they say – eavesdrop on calls, or even record them
  • Read messages on any messenger, regardless of whether encryption is used
  • Monitor social network activity
  • See photos and videos
  • Switch on the camera
All of this private information can be collected, usually from a mobile device, such as a tablet or a smartphone.

Non-profit organizations from the Coalition Against Stalkerware are experiencing a growing number of survivors seeking help with the problem:
  • Findings from the Second National Survey on technology abuse and domestic violence in Australia, launched by WESNET with the assistance of Dr. Delanie Woodlock and researchers from Curtin University, state that 99.3% of domestic violence practitioners have clients experiencing technology-facilitated abuse and that the use of video cameras increased by 183.2% between 2015 and 2020.
  • According to a study on cyberviolence in intimate relationships, conducted by the Centre Hubertine Auclert in France, 21% of victims have experienced stalkerware at the hands of their abusive partner, and 69% of victims have the feeling that the personal information on their smartphone has been accessed by their partner in a hidden way.
  • In Germany, for several years, Women’s Counselling Centers and Rape Crisis Centers (bff) have noticed an increasing use of stalkerware in conjunction with partner relationships.
  • In the USA, stalking impacts an estimated 6-7.5 million people over a one-year period, and one-in-four victims report being stalked through some form of technology, according to the Stalking Prevention Awareness & Resource Center (SPARC).
Physical access is the key

Unfortunately, it is not too difficult to secretly install stalkerware on a victim’s phone. The main barrier that exists is that stalkerware has to be configured on an affected device. Due to the distribution vector of such applications which are very different from common malware distribution schemes, it is impossible to get infected with a stalkerware through a spam message including a link to stalkerware or a trap via normal web surfing.

This means that the abuser will need to have physical access to the target device in order to install stalkerware. This is possible if the device either has no pin, pattern, or password to protect it or alternatively, the abuser knows the victim/survivor personally. Installation on the target device can be completed within a few minutes.

Prior to accessing the survivor’s device, the abuser has to collect a link to the installation package from the stalkerware developer’s webpage. In most cases, the software is not downloaded from an official application store. For Android devices, Google banned applications that are clearly stalkerware from its Google Play application store in 2020. This means the abuser will not be able to install such an application from the general app store. Instead, the abuser must follow several steps before being able to install stalkerware. As a result, the abuser may leave traces in the device settings that a user can check if they are concerned they may be being spied on.

Stalkerware tools are less frequent on iPhones than on Android devices because iOS is traditionally a closed system. However, perpetrators can work around this limitation on jailbroken iPhones. They still need physical access to the phone to jailbreak it, so iPhone users who fear surveillance should always keep an eye on their device. Alternatively, an abuser can offer their victim an iPhone – or any other device – with pre-installed stalkerware as a gift. There are many companies who make their services available online to install such tools on a new phone and deliver it to an unwitting addressee in factory packaging to celebrate a special occasion.
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