Technology and software that provides knowledge of the movements, contacts, and personal information has become increasingly available. This may be spyware, designed to specifically to monitor others, or generally benign monitoring applications misappropriated for such a use. Such tools and applications create additional risks in intimate partner violence situations as they can provide powerful features to abusers seeking to control and intimidate.
Chatterjee et al. systematically searched for spyware applications on Google search and Google Play store. Their analysis assessed the scope of surveillance tools available to abusers. They also sought to better understand the strategies of vendors and the range of available anti-spyware resources.
Through manual and automated techniques, both Google’s web engine and app store were crawled in search of intimate partner surveillance tools. Using manual review, machine-learning, and an algorithmic search, the results were scanned for spyware tools. Seventy of the resulting apps were then manually analysed in order to uncover their design and capabilities. They also assessed the developer’s role in the illegal or abusive use of their products, by investigating user comments, advertising, and customer support.
The intimate partner surveillance resources that were found included both free and payed apps. Based on their intended uses, the individually reviewed apps were categorized into three groups: (1) personal tracking apps, which are designed for a sole phone owner to monitor their device or self; (2) mutual tracking apps, intended for two or more people to be able to track each other’s devices; and (3) subordinate hacking tools allowing unilateral tracking or monitoring of a targeted device, without a need for their consent.
None of the uncovered tools were overtly described as spyware. Some of the app could be decribed as dual use, meaning they had an official, intended purpose that could nevertheless be subverted by an abuser. Oftentimes, these apps underlined their legitimate intent on the official store, yet advertised illegitimate usages elsewhere. By knowingly encouraging the illicit misuse of their products, some developers could thus be described as tacitly facilitating intimate partner surveillance.
Applications thinly veiled as legitimate that provide for the surveillance of intimate partner by nontechnical repurposing appear to be readily available online. These applications represent a source of potential harm for victims of intimate partner violence.
Spyware applications that can be used to abuse others are easily available to non-technical users.