UK Stalkerware Usage Soars During Lockdown

Anti-malware company Avast saw a sharp spike in the use of stalkerware during the UK’s pandemic lockdown, it revealed this week. Installations of online spying and stalking apps across the country rose 83% on average from March onward, compared to January and February.

Stalkerware apps are unauthorized software applications introduced onto a person’s phone without their knowledge. They feed back information on the victim’s activities, such as their surfing habits, text messages and location. They can also communicate the contents of their emails and even allow the perpetrators to listen in on peoples’ phone calls. Apps like these are often disguised as parental control or employee tracking software, or even remote access tools, but they tend to hide their presence.

The use of stalkerware in the UK during the lockdown was especially high compared to a 51% global increase in the use of this software, Avast said. Since March, the company has protected over 1400 users in the UK from stalkerware and other spying apps, it added.

The figures correlate with reports of an increase in domestic violence in the UK during lockdown. In May, anti-abuse charity Refuge reported a 50% increase in calls to its helpline and a surge of more than 300% in visits to its website since the lockdown began.

The news comes a month after anti-virus testing site AV-Comparatives updated its stalkerware testing report to measure the performance of various anti-virus tools in detecting these products. Overall, it found an increase in detection rates since last running the test in November 2019. While there were some improvements in detecting Android stalkerware (Avast’s rate increased from 70% to 75%, for example), the biggest increase was for Windows-based stalkerware. Avast detected eight of the 10 Windows stalkerware programs tested, compared to five last November.

In the Windows test, four of 10 anti-virus programs detected all 10 Windows stalkerware apps (Bitdefender, ESET, Kaspersky, and Norton). Android detection remains more difficult, it seems, with no companies detecting all 20 titles tested on that platform. The best performers were Kaspersky and Trend Micro, both of which detected 95% of Android-based stalkerware, followed by ESET.

The AV-Comparatives test emerged from work with the Electronic Frontier Foundations Coalition Against Stalkerware, launched last November.

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