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For the ongoing series, Code Word, we’re exploring if — and how — technology can protect individuals against sexual assault and harassment, and how it can help and support survivors.

Hollywood has us believing that spyware technology is only used by secret-agent hackers who plant tracking devices in car wheels or in the soles of shoes. But in reality, “stalkerware” isn’t as high-tech or inaccessible as we’re led to believe. It’s harnessed to become a dangerous weapon that strips people of their privacy all too often especially women in abusive relationships. 

Today, stalkerware technology, also known as “spouseware,” takes the form of applications or add-ons to a device that allows someone to remotely monitor another person’s activity. For example, the parental surveillance app “PhoneSheriff” allowed people to read texts, view photos, and access the GPS location of a phone it had secretly installed — and there’s countless more apps like this

There are also apps like Absher, a government-based mobile app in Saudi Arabia, which came under criticism earlier this year amid claims that it reinforced the country’s system of male guardianship. The app’s features allowed Saudis to renew their driver’s license and request government documents online, it also reportedly gave male users the option to receive SMS alerts when female “dependents” showed their passports at borders  effectively allowing men to track and control women’s movements.

There has been little research on stalkerware or attempts to grasp its true scale, but a 2018 study by researchers at Cornell University found that there are dozens of stalkerware tools easily available. However, the authors warned the majority are “dual use” apps masquerading as child safety or anti-theft tools, which can easily be repurposed for spying on a partner or spouse.

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The predator in your pocket

Domestic abuse is an age-old problem, and as new technologies seep into our everyday life, aggressors have adopted and repurposed them to terrorize, control, and manipulate their partners. Earlier this year, the domestic-violence charity, Refuge, estimated that around 95 percent of its cases involved technology-based abuse.

Last month, Citizen Lab published a comprehensive study on stalkerware and other software that’s commonly used by abusive partners to spy on their partners called “The Predator in your Pocket.”

In the six-part report, it evaluated how stalkerware companies market and advertise their products. Using marketing intelligence methods, the paper’s researchers found that many of the companies were actively promoting their software to facilitate stalking, and by extension, intimate partner violence, abuse, and harassment. 

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