In 2020, at least 53,870 mobile users around the world were secretly spied on by someone else through their devices. Although they were less than two years ago (67,500), in 2021 there will be many more who will be secretly harassed, according to the forecasts of the cybersecurity company Kaspersky. The phenomenon of digital espionage, known to cybersecurity experts as stalkerware, has begun to become popular and out of control in recent years with the rise of mobile devices and hyperconnection, a product of the development of new technologies and confinement by the pandemic. of the coronavirus. Kaspersky has spoken out against this practice in a report published this year.
“We see that the number of users affected by stalkerware has remained high and we detect new samples every day. It is important to remember that there is a real life story of someone behind all these numbers and a silent call for help, ”explains Victor Chebyshev, head of Kaspersky's research development team, in the report. The company has published the report together with the Coalition Against Stalkerware, a project that brings together more than 20 cybersecurity expert companies concerned about the rise of this cyber activity.
But what is stalkerware , how does it work and who are its victims ? It is a software that allows the monitoring and monitoring of the activity of a user on a smart device, such as a mobile, a tablet or a computer. The problem with this software is that it was not created specifically for espionage and harassment, but for the exchange of data between devices in a simpler way. “Although some of these tools may have a legitimate use, such as parental controls, many times we observe how it is installed on someone else's devices without their consent, allowing them to spy on their communications and all their activity thanks to the features and sensors that they incorporate these devices ", explains Josep Albors, Research Director at ESET .
Such is the case of NIDB, one of the tools that Kaspersky considers to be" the most used for stalkerware ". NIDB, according to the information provided by the company , is a powerful and easy-to-install database system designed to "allow easy import, search and exchange of image data." "The data is stored on your site, controlled by you, to share it with other sites whenever you want," says NIDB. But the problem is when these tools are installed on other devices and the person who controls and observes what happens on that mobile, tablet or computer is someone other than the owner of the device.
NIDB is not the only one. There are several different stalkerware products on the market, such as iSpyoo, TheTruthSpy, and Copy9, among others. Other stalkerware applications often disguise themselves under a false name with suspicious access to messages, call logs, location and other personal activities. "For example, an application called WiFi that has access to geolocation is a suspicious candidate," the report warns. But what about who is spied on?
“We have to bear in mind that stalkerware is usually used by those who want to spy on or control other people, so uninstalling the application as soon as they find out about its existence can lead to negative consequences and even physical aggression ”, warns Albors. Instead, the expert recommends that the victim inform the competent authorities of their situation so that they act accordingly and assess the need for any type of support to avoid reprisals. Along the same lines, Daniel Creus, Kaspersky cybersecurity analyst, suggests that "it is the victim who has to take into account their personal circumstances to determine how to proceed." Unfortunately, stalkerware victims usually find out when a long time has passed and their privacy has been compromised over and over again. And the worst thing is that his perpetrators are usually close people. "It happens especially in abusive relationships," says Creus and assures that the phenomenon is global.
In terms of geographical distribution, Russia (12,389 victims), Brazil (6,523), the United States (4,745), India (4,627) and Mexico (1,570) are the countries most affected worldwide, at least during 2020. In Europe, Germany (1,547), Italy (1,345) and the United Kingdom (1,009) are the three countries with the most cases of stalkerware . Spain is ranked number twelve in the world list with 873 reported cases, but it is the fifth among the European countries with the most reported incidents. And the cases could be many more, since these are only those that Kaspersky has detected. “We are sharing our part of the picture with the community in order to gain a better understanding of the problem. But it is clear that we must all share what we are finding in order to further improve detection and protection for the benefit of those affected by cyber violence ", says Chebyshev.
Avoid and report
" To install software of this type you need to have access to the victim's device. For this reason, it is essential to protect our smartphone with the appropriate security measures (PIN, patterns and biometric measures) to prevent it from being easily unlocked. Furthermore, we can establish access restrictions to certain sections of the device, such as the system configuration, to prevent applications from being installed from unknown sources and being granted excessive permissions ”, recommends Albors.
But how do you know if someone is spying? It is complex, but not impossible. The first step is to verify the permissions on the installed applications, make sure that they were installed by the owner of the device and eliminate those that are not used. "If the application has not been opened in a month or more, it is probably safe to assume that it is no longer needed," they explain from Kaspersky. Also, you have to check the settings of the unknown sources on Android devices, mainly. If Unknown Sources is enabled on the device, it could be a sign that unwanted software was installed from a third-party source.
Another step is to check your browser history. "To download stalkerware , the abuser must visit some web pages that the affected user does not know, although it could happen that he does not find anything in the history if the abuser has deleted it," they warn in the report. But ESET and Kapersky experts agree that the most important thing is to rely on proven cybersecurity protection and there are several applications and services for this, such as Kaspersky Internet Security (Android), TinyCheck, LastPass or Avira, which are free. and Coronavirus
From the cybersecurity company Kaspersky, they point out that the use of stalkerware "has not improved much compared to 2019, especially due to the atypical nature of 2020, as a result of the coronavirus. To combat the pandemic, all the countries of the world have been faced with massive restrictions such as self-isolation measures or lockdowns for people to stay at home. "Considering that stalkerware is used as another tool to control the intimate partner with whom the abuser lives in their day-to-day lives, this can explain the lower numbers compared to the previous year ”, explain Kaspersky experts, who predict that in 2021 with the confinement and vaccination, cases increase again, as in 2019.
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