The app described itself as a tool to monitor the online activities of family members by logging what they type. Once it was installed from Google’s official app store, its icon could be changed to that of a calculator or calendar app. In my tests, the app documented all of my typing, including web searches, text messages and emails.
Flash Keylogger is part of a rapidly expanding group of apps known as “stalkerware.” While these apps numbered in the hundreds a few years ago, they have since grown into the thousands. They are widely available on Google’s Play Store and to a lesser degree Apple’s App Store, often with innocuous names like MobileTool, Agent and Cerberus. And they have become such a tool for digital domestic abuse that Apple and Google have started in the past year acknowledging that the apps are an issue.
From last September to May, the number of devices infected with stalkerware jumped 63%, according to a study by security firm NortonLifeLock. This month, the Federal Trade Commission said it had barred one app-maker, Support King, from offering SpyFone, a piece of stalkerware that gains access to a victim’s location, photos and messages. It was the first ban of its kind.
“It’s extremely invasive, it’s a very big deal and it’s linked to some of the worst abuse I’ve seen in intimate partner abuse,” Eva Galperin, a cybersecurity director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organisation, said of the apps.
Stalkerware is a thorny issue because it lives in a gray area. There are legitimate uses for surveillance apps, like parental control software that monitors children online to protect them from predators. But this technology becomes stalkerware when it’s stealthily installed on a partner’s phone to spy on him or her without consent. Such apps are more pervasive on phones running Android, researchers said, because the more open nature of Google’s software system gives the programs deeper access to device data and lets people install whatever apps they want on their phones. Yet new stalking software targeting iPhones has also emerged.
Google said it banned apps that violated its policies, including Flash Keylogger. An Apple spokesperson added that the new stalkerware was not a vulnerability in the iPhone that could be fixed with technology if an abuser had access to a person’s device and passcode. Fighting stalkerware is tough. You may not suspect it’s there. Even if you did, it can be difficult to detect since antivirus software only recently began flagging these apps as malicious.Surveillance software has proliferated on computers for decades, but more recently spyware-makers have shifted their focus to mobile devices. Because mobile devices have access to more intimate data, including photos, real-time location, phone conversations and messages, the apps became known as stalkerware.
Various stalkerware apps collect different types of information. Some record phone calls, some log keystrokes and others track location or upload a person’s photos to a remote server. But they all generally work the same way: An abuser with access to a victim’s device installs the app on the phone and disguises the software as an ordinary piece of software, like a calendar app.
Chen is a tech reporter with NYT©2021
The New York Times.