Wesnet, the national peak body representing specialist women’s domestic violence services, today announced that it has joined forces with the Coalition Against Stalkerware to combat non-consensual tracking via digital device and to work towards providing support to survivors of domestic violence. 

Today, the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women coincides closely with the Coalition Against Stalkerware’s one year anniversary. In its first year, the Coalition has more than doubled its membership to 26 partners, including domestic violence advocacy and direct service organisations, IT security vendors, mobile security companies, privacy solutions providers, an association of technology journalists, and organisations focused on cyber safety. 

For some years, the problem of stalkerware has been on the rise. Non-profit organisations are experiencing a growing number of survivors seeking help with the problem, and cybersecurity companies are detecting a consistent increase in these harmful applications. Launched in November 2019, the Coalition Against Stalkerware became an important organisation dedicated to protecting consumers from abuse, stalking and harassment via commercially-available surveillance software.

“What is stalkerware?”

Stalkerware, often referred to as commercially available spyware, are programs that enable an abuser to intrude into a person’s private life and can be used as a tool for abuse in cases of domestic violence and stalking. By installing these applications on a person’s device, abusers can get access to their victim’s messages, photos, social media, geolocation, audio or camera recordings (in some cases, this can be done in real-time). Such programs run hidden in the background, without a victim’s knowledge or consent.

Data from member organisations has shown a sharp rise in stalkerware apps in recent years.

  • In 2019, Kaspersky detected a 67% year-on-year increase of stalkerware usage on its users’ mobile devices at a global level. The number of stalkerware installations worldwide during the first 10 months of 2020 (from January to October) totaled more than 48,500, which is close to the total (almost 52,000 installations) observed over the same period in 2019.
  • According to Malwarebytes, while these apps have always presented a significant threat to users, the shelter-in-place orders that began taking effect in March 2020 resulted in a dramatic uptick in usage. Malwarebytes recorded a peak increase from January 1 to June 30, finding a 780 percent increase in monitor apps detections, and a 1,677 percent increase in spyware detections. Though detections waned starting in July, the numbers never dropped to their January levels. From January 1 to October 31, Malwarebytes recorded a 584 percent increase in monitor app detections, and a 1,044 percent increase in spyware detections. Overall, this represents more than 43,000 monitor app detections in the first 10 months of 2020. 
  • With Covid-19 spreading early 2020 and more and more countries going into lock-down to combat the pandemic, F-Secure saw a significant increase in Stalkerware detections starting in March. While detections declined during early summer they shot up again towards the end of the holiday period and we noticed almost four times as many Stalkerware detections during August and September compared to the previous months. Cerberus is the most detected Stalkerware with 52 percent of the detections across unique mobile devices. Advertised as an anti-theft app it allows a stalker to hide on an Android device, prevent its deletion and also tracks the location of the device, takes pictures and screenshots as well as records audio.

With lockdowns which may be globally repeated due to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence incidents may be increasing again. Coalition partners from different territories reported increases in Spring 2020. 

  • In France, the Centre Hubertine Auclert explains there was a 50% increase of calls to the main helpline for domestic violence victims (helpline 3919 of the Fédération Nationale Solidarité Femmes).
  • For India, the Cyber Peace Foundation refers to the National Commission for Women (NCW) reporting 587 complaints on their helpline number and online portal since the lockdown kicked into effect in March. Also, Cyber Peace Foundation states that 89% of the total number of cases registered to legal services authorities across the country were of domestic violence.

About the Coalition Against Stalkerware

The Coalition seeks to combine its partners’ expertise in domestic violence survivor support, digital rights advocacy, and cybersecurity to address the criminal behavior perpetrated by stalkerware and to raise general awareness about this important issue. European Institute for Gender Equality research shows that seven in ten women (70%) who have experienced cyber stalking, have also experienced at least one form of physical or/and sexual violence from an intimate partner.

Echoing words of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres who called gender violence ‘Shadow Pandemic’, members of the Coalition believe that we all have a role to play in recognising the stealthy nature of stalkerware, the harmful impact that it has, and the need for collective action to support and assist individuals targeted by stalkerware. 

During 2020, the Coalition partners have focused on raising greater awareness of stalkerware advocacy organisations, journalists, and regulators through public speeches, events, publications, research, and collecting the cybersecurity vendors’ data on stalkerware. The Coalition have also created a standard definition and detection criteria for stalkerware, which did not previously exist. 

The Coalition’s plans for its second year include: outreach to individuals and organisations that can contribute to the stalkerware sample/metadata information sharing mechanism; additional data collection to inform evidence-based policymaking to respond to threats posed by stalkerware; series of assistance seminars to assist support organisations working with survivors of domestic violence and other individuals targeted by stalkerware; and further expansion of the Coalition to include additional organisations globally to assist in the mission of combating stalkerware and protecting individuals. 

To find more about the organisation’s activity, please visit the Coalition’s online resource. Users can find information about what stalkerware is, what it can do, how to detect it, and how to protect themselves in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. For potentially affected users, the Coalition members recommend contacting local victim service organisations immediately.

Recent and upcoming Coalition Against Stalkerware activities include:

  • Webinar on the findings of the Second National Survey on technology abuse and domestic violence in Australia: 24 November 2020 (1pm AEDT) hosted by WESNET. Some initial findings are that 99.3% of DV practitioners have clients experiencing technology-facilitated abuse and that the use of video cameras increased by 183.2% between 2015 and 2000.  View the Report at: https://wesnet.org.au/about/research/2ndnatsurvey
  • The National Network to End Domestic Violences is partnering with Kering Foundation and Modern Films on 16 Days 16 Films, a short-film initiative to eliminate violence against women, push for change and accountability, and help combat gender inequality by creating opportunities for female filmmakers to have their stories seen.