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Writing About Stalkerware

The use of stalkerware is one type of abuse (some prefer: intimate partner violence) that a survivor may experience, and can be one of the most pervasive. When giving advice and strategies to victims and survivors of stalkerware or speaking or writing about the subject publicly, it is crucial that you have some basic understanding of domestic abuse, as well-intentioned but ill-informed interventions can put the safety of victims at risk. A good place to learn about this is the website of NNEDV or those of similar organisations in other countries. Below, we list several of the most important safety considerations that must be kept in mind when communicating with stalkerware victims.

Intimate Partner Violence is rooted in power and control that goes far beyond jealousy. Survivors of abuse often feel as if they do not have many choices to leave, to seek help, or to know what to do, because of the control that their abuser often exerts over them. This includes leaving the relationship (or cutting ties with an abusive ex-partner) but also taking full control of their personal devices. Often times, leaving an abusive relationship or trying to take back control can be the most dangerous time for a survivor, and can often lead to violence or an escalation of violence.
Often, survivors share not only a relationship but access to their devices with a partner, especially if they have shared accounts. While it may be good practice to not share a device’s pin code with anyone else, for many survivors it is not safe to refuse.

Security software, such as anti-virus, can play an important role in making a user aware of stalkerware being present on their device, but for many victims, removing the malicious software may not be safe, since abusers may be monitoring them and the abuse could escalate. It is often hard to detect stalkerware and suggesting a security lockdown may not be an easy solution to a complicated problem. This suggestion could also give a false sense of security.

For these reasons, it is important to remember that security software cannot serve as a one-size-fits-all “solution” for individuals who believe that stalkerware is installed on their devices.

If you or your organization are asked directly about “advice” or “suggestions,” you should be upfront: there is no single solution to this nuanced problem. Instead, for those who have questions or want to speak with an advocate, please connect them to the National Domestic Violence hotline or an equivalent organization in your country, and remind them that these resources should be accessed from a safe device.

It is also good to note that the distinction between stalkerware and other methods of tracking mobile phones (such as shared accounts or find-my-phone apps) isn’t always clear to users.
Because stalkerware often includes the ability to track the user’s browsing history and location, urging the user to go to the police, or telling them to visit a website for more information, isn’t always a good idea.

Finally, sometimes stalkerware is grouped together with spyware used by governments to spy on specific individuals (for example NSO’s Pegasus spyware). Though this is a big problem in itself, the methods and techniques available to governments are often considerably more sophisticated than those available to abusers who buy off-the-shelf stalkerware.. Conflating the two could make stalkerware victims and survivors unnecessarily paranoid.