Your mobile phone is a magnet for cyberstalkers and hackers. Here's how to protect yourself
- Over a million people are affected by cyberstalking in the U.S. every year, the Bureau of Justice reports.
- App stores feature more than 25,000 apps that facilitate cyberstalking.
- There are a number of security apps available for Android devices, such as Malwarebytes and Sophos AV.
- Apple does not allow anti-stalkerware apps on their App Store, leaving victims with few options.
Some 6.6 million people are victims of stalking every year in the United States, according to The National Center for Victims of Crime, and 1 in 4 of those affected report being stalked through some form of technology. This can range from monitoring their devices or social media accounts to using GPS trackers or hidden cameras.
Cellphones contain a huge amount of sensitive data, including private messages, photos and banking information. They therefore make an obvious target for any stalkers wanting to track the movements, activities and lifestyle of their victims.
"Full access to someone's phone is essentially full access to someone's mind," says Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Spy apps abound
Stalkerware, also known as Spouseware, is the name given to a class of spyware that is commonly used by domestic abusers and angry exes to spy on their victim's phone and gain access to private information.
Companies like FlexiSpy and mSpy are making stalkerware easily accessible to anyone for as little as $30, often marketed as a tool to "keep your child safe" or "catch a cheating spouse." A 2016 report by Vice found that FlexiSpy had a monthly sales volume of more than $400,000 for their stalkerware products, meaning that over the course of a year, there could be more than 100,000 new stalkerware victims for this company alone.
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According to Certo Software, a mobile anti-spyware company, demand for tools to detect stalkerware on cellphones has tripled in the last two years, and positive detections of stalkerware on iPhones has doubled this year alone.
While these companies state that their products should not be used on someone's device without their permission, in reality this is not the case in the vast majority of situations, and these disclaimers clash with often blatant advertising that recommends using it to spy on romantic partners.
Once one of these intrusive apps is installed on a victim's device, a stalker can monitor their exact location, read messages, view photos and even silently turn on their microphone to listen in whenever they want.
Today there are over 25,000 apps that facilitate stalking or spying, many of which can be downloaded from the official app stores or directly from the developer's website. They're not hard to find, either, with one of the most popular stalking tools, mSpy, even spotted in a Twitter advert last month.
Stalkerware is most common on Android devices, but iPhones are by no means immune to hacking. If you're concerned about stalkerware finding its way onto your phone, you'll probably head over to your app store to get an anti-stalkerware app. However, while there are a number of great security apps available for Android devices, such as Malwarebytes and Sophos AV, you'll find that apps offering spyware/stalkerware detection simply don't exist for Apple mobile devices.
Given the popularity of iPhones, this may seem strange, but the reason actually lies with Apple themselves as they don't allow anti-stalkerware apps within their App Store, claiming that their devices do not need them. Hard to believe, isn't it? That for one of the most popular phones in the world, the average user has no easy way to check if their device is hacked.
There have been several security vulnerabilities affecting iPhones in the news recently. Most notably the WhatsApp attack earlier in the year and a mistake in iOS 12.4 whereby a previously fixed bug, which let hackers install spyware on iPhones, was accidentally reintroduced by Apple. All prompting people to question whether Apple's devices are as secure as we once thought.
How you can protect yourself
With no signs of Apple allowing fully fledged security apps anytime soon, it's important for iPhone users to remain vigilant against hackers and stalkerware.
So what's the best way to protect an iPhone from stalkerware?
- The most important measure you can take is to always ensure that your iOS version is kept up to date, which will make it much harder for anyone to get these apps onto your device.
- Second, make sure you use a strong passcode (6 characters or more) that only you know, as this will stop someone from gaining access to your device to install a hidden stalkerware app.
- Then check if two-factor authentication is enabled for your Apple ID, as this will stop anyone accessing your personal information stored on iCloud, which often contains a complete backup of your entire phone.
If you are worried that stalkerware or spyware may already be installed on your iPhone, then even though there aren't any apps for this available on the App Store, there are some non-App Store tools emerging such as MobilEdit that can detect if you've been a victim of stalkerware.
Even if you've never been a victim of stalkerware, arming yourself with knowledge of the threats and taking appropriate precautions can make it very difficult for someone to successfully install it on your device. This knowledge may help you or a friend potentially escape a dangerous situation in the future.
Simon Lewis, co-founder of Certo Software, has over 15 years' experience in cybersecurity and threat analysis.