Thousands of apps that enable abusive people to secretly spy on their partner are simple to install and marketed through a murky web of online advertising, blogs and videos explaining how to use them for illegal purposes, scientists including one of Indian origin have found.
The apps not only include traditional spyware but software intended for more benign uses, such as finding phones or keeping track of children – making it all but impossible to use existing anti-spyware tools to protect against them.
Some apps were actively marketed to abusers, including one with a webpage titled “Mobile Spy App for Personal Catch Cheating Spouses” and an image of a man gripping the arm of a woman with scratches on her face.
However, apps not overtly aimed at abusers, whose official websites refer only to uses like employee or child tracking, were found to use advertising search terms such as “track my girlfriend” or “how to catch a cheating spouse with his cell phone.”
“Thousands of these apps are available in the open market,” said Rahul Chatterjee, a doctoral student at Cornell University in the US.
“You can easily find them, and existing anti-spyware apps don’t detect them, so intimate partner violence victims have no way to know they’re being spied on,” said Chatterjee.
The researchers reported their findings to Google, which in response stopped allowing advertisements for abuse-related searches and tightened policies in its Play Store.
Victims of domestic abuse increasingly report online surveillance, which allows abusers to monitor their locations, conversations and more – sometimes leading to violent or even fatal confrontations.
They are often unaware of the tracking until they notice that their partners have information or are showing up in places they otherwise wouldn’t.
Since abusers may have access to their partners’ phones or passwords, installation of even the most invasive apps can be easy.
Starting with search terms like “track my wife” or “read SMS from another phone,” the researchers found blogs, videos or chat forums offering step-by-step instructions of how to do it.
Neither Google nor Apple allow overt spyware to be sold through their platforms, but some spying apps are sold elsewhere.
Others, the researchers believe, describe themselves as legitimate apps so they can be found through Google and Apple but are also marketing themselves to abusers for illegal purposes.
For example, blogs – some of them hosted on the apps’ own domains – discuss how helpful that particular app can be for intimate spying.
To gauge the attitudes of a company toward these abuses, researchers contacted customer support at 11 of the apps they examined to ask, “If I use this app to track my husband will he know that I am tracking him? Thanks, Jessie.” Of the nine who replied, all but one responded with some version of “No, he shouldn’t notice.”
The problem is so large in scope that combating it won’t be easy, researchers said.
They are working to create a better spyware-detection tool, but more intervention is needed.