Stalkerware apps can discover victims’ locations, reveal their email address and photos, and record calls © Adriano Machado/Reuters

The use of invasive apps designed to spy on other people’s phones has jumped 51 per cent globally during the pandemic, according to cyber security company Avast, adding to growing concerns about the effects of lockdowns on domestic abuse victims.

Avast said the UK had a particularly steep rise in the use of spying apps, with the monthly average of devices targeted during lockdown rising 83 per cent compared to the first two months of the year. Since March, it said it protected more than 1,400 users in the UK from such apps.

So-called stalkerware apps, which can discover victims’ locations, reveal their email address and photos, and record calls, made up the majority of cases, as perpetrators turned to the technology to control and intimidate their victims.

“Stalkerware is a growing category of domestic malware with disturbing and dangerous implications,” said Jaya Baloo, chief information security officer at Avast, warning that “it steals the physical and online freedom of the victim”.

Nooreen Khan, people lead at gender-based violence network Chayn, said it could be hard for victims to discover whether they were being surveilled with stalkerware, as many apps are designed to operate covertly.

Avast said it also found several Covid-19-related apps designed to spy on users, echoing findings from ongoing research in Australia. “[Some perpetrators] are now [excusing their GPS tracking] by either saying they want to protect women and children from Covid-19 or that they themselves don’t want to be infected,” said Delanie Woodlock, a sociologist who studies domestic violence and sexual assault.

“Once perpetrators have these sorts of monitoring in place, it can be very hard for women to turn these things off without alerting [them],” she added.

Other academics warned stalkerware was only one way in which perpetrators could access their victims’ private data. “What we find in our research is that with access to [a victim’s] phone, [a perpetrator] can learn almost as much if not more than using spyware,” said Sarah St Vincent, director of Cornell University’s computer security clinic for survivors of intimate partner violence.

Lockdown has also given rise to an increase in other forms of tech-mediated abuse, including image-based attacks. According to Sophie Mortimer, manager of the Revenge Porn Helpline, which provides support and advice for victims, the number of people seeking assistance during lockdown months was double that of the same period in 2019, and the bulk of those cases related to domestic abuse.

Leonie Tanczer, a lecturer in international security and emerging technologies at UCL who is leading a project on gender and the internet of things, said perpetrators shared images publicly in order to shame victims as well as threatening to do so in order to coerce them.

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