Despite warnings from domestic abuse networks, privacy rights advocates, and a committed faction of cybersecurity vendors, Americans may be accepting and minimizing online stalking behaviors, including the use of invasive apps that can pry into a user’s text messages, emails, photos, videos, and phone logs.

The limited opposition to these at-times abusive behaviors was revealed by a new study conducted by NortonLifeLock, consumer cyber safety vendor and founding member of the Coalition Against Stalkerware, which Malwarebytes helped form last year.

The distressing survey revealed that nearly half of individuals between the ages of 18 and 34 said they found online stalking to be “harmless.” Further, the study revealed that 1 in 10 Americans admitted to using digital monitoring apps—sometimes referred to as stalkerware—against their ex or current romantic partners.

How did we get here?

Unfortunately, we cannot precisely determine whether the NortonLifeLock survey results represent a shift in attitudes or reflect a long-held acceptance of surveillance culture online. While US government agencies have recorded stalking statistics for decades, those same agencies either have not recorded admissions of online stalking behavior and perceptions of its harms, or did not respond to requests for such data.

However, domestic abuse advocates and researchers agreed that several factors play a role in the public’s acceptance of this type of behavior. Many romantic comedy films romanticize stalking, while increasingly more consumer home devices have normalized private, digital surveillance. Further, current mobile apps have turned the viewing of someone’s private life into an otherwise harmless interaction.

More likely, though, is that the public has always failed to recognize and respond to the actual harms of stalking, said Elaina Roberts, technology safety legal manager with National Network to End Domestic Violence.

“This is an age-old crime and people’s perceptions of it, in my opinion, haven’t changed all that much,” Roberts said.

The NortonLifeLock Online Creeping Survey

In conjunction with The Harris Poll, NortonLifeLock surveyed more than 2,000 adults in the United States about “online creeping”—behavior that includes consistent, stealthy tracking of someone online, which could also veer into behavior that is more akin to cyber stalking.

Overall, the survey found that 46 percent of respondents admitted to “stalking” an ex or current partner online “by checking in on them without their knowledge or consent.”

The most common forms of online stalking included checking a current or former partner’s phone—at 29 percent—and looking through a partner’s search history on one of their devices without permission—at 21 percent. Disturbingly, 9 percent of respondents admitted to creating a fake social media profile to check in on their partners, and 8 percent of respondents admitted to tracking a partner’s physical activity through their phone or through a health-related app.

Kevin Roundy, technical director for NortonLifeLock, warned about these behaviors.

“Some of the behaviors identified in the NortonLifeLock Online Creeping Survey may seem harmless, but there are serious implications when this becomes a pattern of behavior and escalates, or when stalkerware and creepware apps get in the hands of an abusive ex or partner,” Roundy said.

When asked why respondents engaged in these behaviors, the top two answers revealed a lack of trust and an itching, potentially harmful level of concern; 44 percent said “they didn’t trust [their partner] or suspected they were up to no good,” while 38 percent said they were “just curious.”

The gender disparity in the results was clear. In seemingly every category, men found it more acceptable to engage in these behaviors and to have these behaviors enacted against them.

While 35 percent of respondents said “they don’t care if they are being stalked online by a current or former partner as long as they are not being stalked in person,” it was 43 percent of men who agreed with that statement versus 27 percent of women. Further, 20 percent of men said they tracked a current or former partner’s location, versus 13 percent of women. Men also showed that they more readily accepted online stalking if one or both of the partners in a relationship had cheated or were merely suspected of cheating.

These results reflect broader statistics in America about who is more often victimized by stalking.

According to a national report of about 13,000 interviews conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 15.2 percent of women and an estimated 5.7 percent of men have been stalked in their lifetime. Women who said they were stalked during their lifetimes stated they were the target of a variety of behaviors, including being approached at home or work (61.7 percent); receiving unwanted messages like texts and voice mails (55.3 percent); and being watched, followed, or spied on with a “listening device, camera, or GPS device” (49.7 percent).

When asked if the CDC records the rate of admission of stalking behavior and perceptions to stalking behavior, a spokesperson said the agency does not keep such statistics.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, which also tracks stalking in America, did not respond to a request for similar data.

Despite the two agencies’ robust datasets on the threat of stalking, the NortonLifeLock survey revealed a different perspective on similar behavior—a potentially concerning coziness with it. Young Americans in particular, the survey showed, found little threat in online stalking.

The survey said that 45 percent of those aged 18–34 found online stalking to be “harmless.” The same age group most heavily engaged in the behavior—65 percent said they have “checked in on a current or former significant other.”

Domestic abuse advocates argue that those high statistics reflect a society that fails to fully recognize the harms of stalking, cyberstalking, and invasive behavior toward romantic partners. Further, the language actually used in the survey might point to less nefarious interpretations by young people.

The normalization and minimization of stalking

Despite the NortonLifeLock study revealing troubling perceptions of online stalking behavior, Erica Olsen, director of Safety Net at National Network to End Domestic Violence, said these perceptions existed long before the advent of technology-enabled abuse. It’s been happening for decades, Olsen said.

“I unfortunately think that stalking behaviors have always, to some extent, been accepted and minimized.” Olsen said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the romanticizingof some of the behaviors—specifically following and spying.”

Olsen pointed to many romantic comedies that portray stalking as endearing.

In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character follows Katharine Ross’s character despite explicitly being told to drop contact, much like John Cusack’s character in Say Anything ignores the wishes of his ex-girlfriend played by Ione Skye. The 1954 film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers involves several men who kidnap a group of women, and no, it isn’t a horror movie.

As The New Statesmen wrote:

“A group of brothers kidnap six attractive women by causing a life-threatening avalanche that keeps them imprisoned all winter. The women play pranks on the men in revenge, and, in a shocking case of Stockholm syndrome, everyone has an all-round jolly time. They pair off and are all married by summer.”

These types of films can impact audience perceptions of intrusive and aggressive behavior, found Julia Lippman, a research fellow at the Center for Political Studies-Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

According to Lippman’s paper, “I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Persistent Pursuit on Beliefs About Stalking,” women who watched movies with positive portrayals of aggressive romantic pursual were more likely to accept those behaviors, as opposed to women who watched movies with scary or threatening depictions of those same types of behaviors.

In speaking to the online outlet Bustle, Lippman said:

“Positive media portrayals of stalking—like those where the pursuer is rewarded by ‘getting the girl’— can lead people to see stalking in a more positive light.”

Media portrayals aside, another factor could play a role in the public’s acceptance of online stalking that amounts to digital surveillance—the privatization of surveillance in our own neighborhoods. Millions of smart doorbells have crept into countless suburbs across America, capturing footage of package thieves, yes, but, more often, of neighbors, children, and animals engaged in harmless behavior.

According to a survey conducted by The Washington Post, smart doorbell owners who understood the privacy risks of their devices said the risks were not enough to deter them from ownership. As The Washington Post wrote:

“[In] the unscientific survey, most people also replied that they were fine with intimate new levels of surveillance—as long as they were the ones who got to watch.”

Finally, the acceptance of “online stalking” by younger generations could intersect with emerging ways of staying in touch with one another, and with the language that young people—particularly teenagers—use.

Diana Freed, a PhD student at the Intimate Partner Violence tech research lab led by Cornell Tech faculty, said that, in her research, she has found that teenagers often use the term “stalking” in a harmless way to check in on people online.

“It’s a very common term used with teens—‘Let’s stalk that person on Instagram,’—but they’re not saying it with the intent to harm,” Freed said.

(Full disclosure, when this Malwarebytes Labs writer attended college, he frequently heard the words “Facebook stalk” used to describe looking up a romantic crush, whether that meant viewing their photos or trying to find their “Relationship Status.”)

Freed said many apps also provide an opportunity for “wholesome” viewing of other people’s lives. With features like TikTok’s constant video feed or Snapchat Stories and Instagram Stories—which give users the ability to post phots and short videos for only 24 hours—users can view another user’s daily activities, despite being physically separated. That type of behavior does not have to be covert, Freed said, and can be done “with full knowledge” between two people who are friends offline.

“The ability to follow people closely is made available to us just by the features offered,” Freed said.

As to whether the presence of the technology itself—including stalkerware-type apps—has somehow created more stalkers, no expert interviewed for this piece saw a provable correlation.

Roberts of NNEDV said that even before the proliferation of GPS devices and stalkerware, domestic abusers would excuse their persistent, physical following of their partners by saying they were merely concerned for their partner’s safety. Today, she said, abusers use the same lies—urging survivors to use GPS location apps or stalkerware as a way to ensure safety.

“So, while we can potentially say that people are just more inclined to be accepting of this behavior today,” Roberts said, “I believe the truth is that people have always minimized these types of ‘caring’ behaviors as they appear to be done out of concern.”

Moving forward

All of this presents two concerning realities—Americans are growing warm to online stalking; Americans have always accepted stalking. Neither is the type of reality that should go unopposed.

Remember, online stalking that violates a person’s privacy is not harmless. Many of the behaviors described in the survey are the same types of behaviors that domestic abuse survivors face every day, from using stalkerware to learn private information, to tracking a person’s GPS location as a means to find them to inflict violence.

For years, Malwarebytes has worked to detect and raise awareness about invasive monitoring apps that can pry into users’ lives without their consent. This latest survey only proves that more work is needed. We’re ready for it.