Love in the time of surveillance
A popular Netflix series tackles a unique perspective on “love.” The show is called “YOU,” and it has as its central figure a guy named Joe who likes to keep tabs on his love interest—her movements, conversations, and even thoughts—by using, among other things, what is commonly known as stalkerware.
As Joe’s story unfolds, the viewer gets to see how the app allows Joe to protect the girl and his interests in many ways, including some that are not always in the realm of what is right, or at least legal. The app, in a way, actually makes for a very interesting co-star.
Stalkerware are programs that can be secretly installed in a person’s device (e.g., mobile phone, tablet, laptop) in order to allow someone to monitor remotely that person’s life (e.g., calls, text messages, emails, contacts, internet browsing activities, location, photos, and so much more). Some can even be used to perform video or audio recordings, or to snap a photo without the device owner’s knowledge. They are that powerful and—as some users are wont to claim—quite easy to use, too.
That last point probably explains why they are quite popular today. Last year alone, for the first eight months, one security company recorded at least 37,532 users who encountered stalkerware on their device. It’s a figure that’s 35% higher than the previous year for the very same period.
This is alarming since there’s an entire gamut of issues surrounding their use:
Invasion of privacy. One has to start with the most obvious. The bottom line is that they pose serious intrusions into a person’s right to privacy, especially when there is no consent from the person being monitored. There’s no getting around that.
Abuse and misuse. Developers often use policies to set limits on the use of their products (e.g., legal age of user, valid targets consisting only of one’s own child or employee, etc.). Unfortunately, this is often just a subtle way of passing the burden of accountability to the users and provides little else in terms of control. There’s plenty of evidence to back this up. Take, for example, Refuge, a domestic-violence charity. The organization claims that 95% of the cases it handles involve some form of technology abuse. Research by the European Institute for Gender Equality also reveals that 70% of those who have experienced cyberstalking have also gone through at least one form of physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their partners.
Unauthorized personal data processing. Given the nature of these apps, targets often have no idea their data are being collected and processed. They are not treated as proper data subjects deserving of rights provided by data protection laws. Consent for the processing is typically obtained from the users who often don’t have the right to provide such consent (except, perhaps, in the case of parents on behalf of their minor children and other similar circumstances). Data sharing practices involving the collected data is another major concern.
Vulnerability to hacking. Their inherently intrusive nature makes stalkerware attractive targets for hackers and other malicious actors. As if it’s not enough that we are concerned about entities that make it their business to expose our lives to others, we also have to worry about those other people who are more than happy to exploit these spying capabilities and use them for their criminal ends.
These issues and many more are probably the reason why Google and Apple have already pulled out many stalkerware programs from their platforms. Many more are still out there, though, and they are by no means available only through these mainstream sources.
What this suggests, of course, is that we should still do our part to protect ourselves and our loved ones from these creepy programs. It’s not going to be easy. Knowing that they are dangerous and actually managing to avoid them are two completely different things. They are, after all, designed to be undetectable.
Nonetheless, there are some telltale signs we could watch for. One just has to understand that they far from foolproof.
For instance, competent anti-virus software usually gives off a warning if you have stalkerware on your device.
Erratic phone behavior (e.g., spike in data usage, shorter battery life than usual, lag when typing, memory space runs out when it should not, location services indicator is turned on all the time, overheating, etc.) should also pique additional interest—especially if you have already checked all other possible reasons as to what may be causing your device to suddenly behave badly.
Then there’s always that weird feeling when someone seems to know a whole lot more about you than he or she should. Best to look a little closer into one’s devices when these situations come up.
Another way to deal with this is to adopt a more secure and cautious approach when using one’s communication devices. In other words, you don’t wait until weird signs start appearing. Do your best to keep them from happening in the first place.
How exactly do you manage this?
Secure your devices, for starters. Never leave them unattended.
If that is impossible, make sure at least to use strong passwords or codes for your accounts. Keep them to yourself and change them regularly, too.
Check your app and device settings to remove or disconnect apps and devices that are no longer in use.
If someone gives you a new gadget as a gift or even if you’ve simply had one for years already, consider restoring it to factory settings. It will erase all data on the device, including any apps that are not supposed to be there.
At the same time, be wary when using legitimate programs like browsers or chat and messaging apps. Some stalkerware can be remotely installed by fooling a person into clicking links, downloading files, or opening messages.
Ignore suspicious links or messages and research about unknown apps being recommended to you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a friend or a stranger making the referral. They are just as susceptible to trickery and manipulation.
In the end, it may do us all some good to revisit those motives often said to be behind this technology. One hard look is all it takes to realize that having the ability to keep track of the thoughts and activities of one’s loved ones only gives a false sense of security, affection, and, ultimately, love.
Genuine relationships are built not on constant surveillance, but rather on trust. Think about it: trusting someone essentially means setting that person free. And isn’t that what true love is supposed to be?
This article first appeared on GMA News Online on February 24, 2020 8:13 pm.