Stealware.

Surveillanceware.

Stalkerware.

These are terms alternately used to effectively identify a file-based threat that has been around since 1996: spyware. More than two decades later, consumer or commercial spyware has gone mainstream, and the surprising number of software designed, openly marketed, and used for spying on people is proof of that.

Forget the government, nation-states, private agencies, and law enforcement. Normal, ordinary citizens can now wield powerful surveillance software and use it against any target they wish—all thanks to “legitimate” companies like mSpy, Retina-X, FlexiSpy, Family Orbit, TheTruthSpy, and others. While the spyware they market can be placed in the hands of employers who want to keep tabs on employees in the workplace, or in the hands of parents who want to look after their kids, it can also be placed in the hands of stalkers, abusive partners, or someone who just wants to get a leg up in the divorce proceedings.

Spyware: spotting the signs

Spyware is usually stealthy by nature—but that doesn’t mean its activities or the effects of its presence on a desktop machine, laptop, or mobile device aren’t unnoticed. Below is a rundown of common symptoms that may indicate your computing devices have spyware installed:

Desktop or laptop:

  • Computer or device sluggishness
  • Crashing (when it usually doesn’t)
  • Multiple, unexpected pop-ups
  • Changes in certain browser settings
  • Unusual redirections to sites you haven’t seen or visited
  • Difficulty logging in to secure websites
  • New browser toolbars, widgets, or apps
  • The appearance of random error messages
  • Certain browser hotkeys stop working

Mobile phone or tablet:

  • Battery runs out quicker than normal
  • The device feels warm even when not in use and not charging
  • Increased data usage/Internet activity
  • Clicking, static, echo-y, or distant voices can be heard when on a call
  • Takes a while to shut down
  • Unexplained phone charges, phone calls, and messages
  • Autocorrect features stop working correctly
  • Longer response time
  • For iPhones: Presence of the Cydia app (although there are products now that don’t require a jailbroken iPhone)
  • For iPhones: Request for Apple ID credentials

Read: IoT domestic abuse: What can we do to stop it?


Spying is caring?

While many of us wrinkle our noses in disgust at spyware, some well-intentioned individuals see the good in planting and using such software in the devices of their loved ones. As mentioned earlier, parents (for example) want to stay in touch with their kids who are out and about. Sometimes just knowing where they are when Mom or Dad checks up on them—of course, they aren’t going to pick up the phone—can help them go about their day a little easier.

If you are already considering or using commercial spyware to “keep an eye” on your kids, we suggest you ask yourself the following questions:

Will I be/Am I breaking any laws?

You are if the following qualifications are true:

The states of Iowa and Washington criminalize some forms of spyware.

Even spyware developers have the Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge (or the SPY BLOCK Act), the Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass (or the SPY ACT), and the Internet Spyware Prevention Act (or The I-SPY Act) to contend with.

Have I already looked for better alternatives?

Almost every “legitimate” spy software in the market wears the slogan “completely undetectable,” or a variant of it. As we always say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Not only is spyware often detectable (see symptoms above), it’s also intruding on privacy. Instead of installing spyware, look for alternative apps that can help you monitor your loved one’s locations without snooping on their other stuff like messages and calls. If you’re an iPhone user, take advantage of Find My Friends. For Android users, you can use Trusted Contacts.

Do I know how these companies treat my target’s information?

“Carelessly” is probably the first word that comes to mind. Just look at the number of breaches that have happened against spyware companies in the last 18 months. Not only that, hackers who claim to target these companies consistently state that the data they siphoned from spyware targets aren’t encrypted at all.

How would I feel if I were in their shoes?

Monitoring a loved one isn’t inherently wrong in and of itself, but doing so without their consent is, even if it’s well-intentioned. This is why it’s so essential for all individuals involved to ask for and give consent when it comes to installing monitoring apps on devices. This doesn’t just apply to the parent-child dynamic.

Of course, for parents of pre-teens, many feel and believe that consent is optional, so they exercise their tough love on the young ones for a little while longer for their own protection and safety. As long as monitoring doesn’t (and shouldn’t) replace a healthy communication between parent or carer and child, this is fine. Parents of teens, on the other hand, may have to reassess their monitoring practices. Perhaps it’s time they sit down with the kids and talk to them about it.

Spying on someone without them knowing sucks. And when they do find out, even if you mean well, the damage caused by the invasion of privacy and breach of trust could be rather hard to undo.

Whether you think it’s beneficial or not to use spyware doesn’t change the fact that it’s still classified as malware, and malware—regardless of the law—isn’t something that should typically be found installed on computing devices of average users.

Stay safe, everyone!