Spyware has made it easier than ever before for perpetrators to stalk, track, monitor, and harass women and their children. Perpetrators can now use spyware to secretly monitor what you do on your computer or handheld device, like a smartphone. If you suspect you are being stalked or monitored, be aware that:
WHAT IS SPYWARE?
Spyware is an app, computer/smartphone software program, or hardware device that enables an unauthorized person (such as a perpetrator) to secretly monitor and gather information about your computer or smartphone use.
There are many types of smartphone and computer software programs and hardware devices that can be installed to monitor your computer activities. They can be installed on your computer without your knowledge; and the person installing them doesn’t even need to have physical access to your computer or smartphone. Spyware is invasive, intrusive, and may put women in grave danger.
HOW DOES SPYWARE WORK?
Spyware can keep track of every keystroke you type, every software application you use, every website you visit, every chat or instant message you send, every document you open, and everything you print. Some spyware software gives the person monitoring the ability to freeze, shutdown or restart your computer. Some versions even allow the perpetrator to remotely turn on your webcam or make your computer/smartphone talk.
Once spyware is installed, it can run in stealth mode and is difficult to detect or uninstall. If the person who installed it has physical access to your computer or smartphone, he or she can log into their device with a special password to see all of the activities (emails sent, documents printed, websites visited, and more) since their last log in. Perpetrators without physical access to your devices can receive reports showing all of your smartphone/computer activities, including copies of emails and instant messages sent, websites visited, etc., as well as screenshots of the computer screen every few seconds. This can all occur without the user knowing.
Below are the computer activities that can be easily monitored:
HOW DOES SPYWARE GET ON MY COMPUTER?
Perpetrators can install spyware on your computer if they have physical or Internet access to your computer. Some perpetrators might hack into your computer from another location via the Internet. Some might send spyware to you as an attached file that automatically installs itself when you open the email. Others may email or instant message a greeting card, computer game, or other ploy to entice you or your children to open an attachment or click on a link. Once opened, the program automatically installs spyware on the victim’s computer, in stealth mode without notification or consent, and can then send electronic reports to the perpetrator via the Internet.
While most spyware is software based (a program that can be installed on your computer), there are also some hardware-based spyware devices called keystroke loggers. These keylogging devices may appear to be a normal computer part; for example, it can be a special keyboard with keystroke logging capabilities or a small device that connects your keyboard to the computer. Once the keylogger is plugged into your computer, it can record every key typed, capturing all passwords, personal identification numbers (PIN), websites visited, and any emails sent.
HOW DO I FIND OUT IF SPYWARE IS ON MY COMPUTER?
Even if a computer is being monitored by spyware, there may not be noticeable changes in the way your computer operates (i.e., your computer won’t necessarily slow down or freeze up). You might suspect that your computer is being monitored by the perpetrator’s suspicious behavior: for example, he or she knows too much about your computer activities. If you suspect that someone has installed spyware to monitor your activities, talk to a victim advocate before attempting to remove the spyware. Law enforcement or a computer forensics expert may be able to assist you if you want to preserve evidence that may be needed for a criminal investigation.
Unfortunately, detecting spyware on your computer may be difficult. If a hardware device has been installed, you might see an additional component between the computer and the keyboard cord, or it might be the keyboard or mouse itself. In laptops, hardware device would be installed inside the laptop, through the access panel. Hardware spyware cannot be detected by anti-spyware software.
Software spyware typically runs in stealth mode using disguised file names that look legitimate. Sometimes, running anti-spyware software may detect this type of spyware but not all of it.
HOW DOES SPYWARE GET ON MY SMARTPHONE?
Spyware programs are available for smartphones so perpetrators can track phone activities, including calls and texts that are sent or received, record conversations, and can even be used as a listening device. The perpetrator will need to have physical access to the phone to manually install the software onto the phone including to download an app on your phone. If you suspect that your cell phone is being monitored, keep an eye on excessive battery or data usage and suspicious patterns of behavior from the abusive person. You can take steps to protect your phone by putting a passcode on your phone and running an anti-spyware/anti-malware app on your phone if your phone has that capability. (Don’t forget that some phone activities can be monitored without spyware. Phone records can be obtained by guessing your account password and accessing your account online or by viewing your call history stored in the phone.)
HOW DO I FIND OUT IF SPYWARE IS ON MY SMARTPHONE?
TIPS FOR WOMEN
©2019 BC Society of Transition Houses, Technology Safety Project.
Adapted from and in cooperation with the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, United States