KidGuard is a phone app that markets itself as a tool for keeping tabs on children. But it has also promoted its surveillance for other purposes and run blog posts with headlines like “How to Read Deleted Texts on Your Lover’s Phone.”
A similar app, mSpy, offered advice to a woman on secretly monitoring her husband. Still another, Spyzie, ran ads on Google alongside results for search terms like “catch cheating girlfriend iPhone.”
As digital tools that gather cellphone data for tracking children, friends or lost phones have multiplied in recent years, so have the options for people who abuse the technology to track others without consent.
More than 200 apps and services offer would-be stalkers a variety of capabilities, from basic location tracking to harvesting texts and even secretly recording video, according to a new academic study. More than two dozen services were promoted as surveillance tools for spying on romantic partners, according to the researchers and reporting by The New York Times. Most of the spying services required access to victims’ phones or knowledge of their passwords — both common in domestic relationships.
Digital monitoring of a spouse or partner can constitute illegal stalking, wiretapping or hacking. But laws and law enforcement have struggled to keep up with technological changes, even though stalking is a top warning sign for attempted homicide in domestic violence cases.
“We misunderstand and minimize this abuse,” said Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “People think that if there’s not an immediate physical proximity to the victim, there might not be as much danger.”
Statistics on electronic stalking are hard to find because victims may not know they are being watched, or they may not report it. Even if they believe they are being tracked, hidden software can make confirmation difficult.
But data breaches at two surveillance companies last year — revealing accounts of more than 100,000 users, according to the technology site Motherboard — gave some sense of the scale. The tracking app company mSpy told The New York Times that it sold subscriptions to more than 27,000 users in the United States in the first quarter of this year.
According to data published last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 percent of women and 11 percent of men in the United States at some point endure stalking or sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner that has significant effects. While comprehensive numbers aren’t available on domestic abuse cases involving digital stalking in the United States, a small survey published in Australia in 2016 found that 17 percent of victims were tracked via GPS, including through such apps.