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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


From Cyber Stalking to Spyware: what do we know about stalkerware in intimate partner violence situations?

By jay, on 3 July 2020

By MPA candidates Jay Neuner, Maddalena Esposito and Thomas Bermudez 

Smartphones and other devices are the lifelines of the modern world. Navigation, information, connection – these critical resources are right at our fingertips.

But for some, the very devices used to enrich their lives are now being used to endanger them. Through “stalkerware” – apps that, once downloaded onto a device, can geo-locate, log keystrokes, access other apps, and much more – others can monitor and even manipulate the device user’s activity. Some of these apps are nearly undetectable. Worryingly, reports from news media, advocacy groups, academia, and others are finding that many perpetrators of these malicious acts are none other than a spouse or other intimate partner, as one of many means of perpetrating intimate partner violence (IPV).

Chayn logo

Chayn logo

These apps represent a disturbing evolution in the phenomena of cyber-stalking, online harassment, and other technology-facilitated abuse. While those fields are increasingly well-documented (though still limited by the relative nascency of the digital realm), stalkerware’s use in IPV is an emerging field requiring much more research.

About Our Project

Through the UCL STEaPP MPA program, we are examining the state of knowledge on stalkerware use in IPV in partnership with Chayn, a global volunteer network producing survivor-led resources on gender-based violence, and UCL’s interdisciplinary Gender and IoT research project (led by STEaPP’s Dr Leonie Tanczer).

We have recently kicked off our project with a detailed review of available literature on subtopics related to stalkerware and technology-facilitated abuse, as well as initial interviews with researchers and practitioners in the field. Our goal is to understand what is and has been researched, who is doing the research, where it is being done, and what actors are involved in this web of knowledge.

This research is also getting underway amidst the Covid-19 pandemic – a situation which, according to news media, has contributed to an increase in domestic violence in places including the United Kingdom. In light of this, we feel our research and the policies to which we hope it contributes have taken on an even greater urgency.

Our project aims include coalescing a shared understanding of the terms used and identifying critical gaps in past and ongoing research, both of which may show the trajectory of this field and areas where it can be improved. We hope these results can be used to aid future policy that cracks down on stalkerware production and use and contributes to the wellbeing of survivors and victims of tech-facilitated abuse.

What We’ve Found

Our insights to date indicate a research field with many potential inroads, from methodological approach to region studied. Here are a few of our initial findings:

  • In the literature, terms like stalkerware and spyware are sometimes used interchangeably and without commonly shared definitions. This is notable as a lack of common understanding may be a hurdle to turning knowledge into action against stalkerware production and use.
  • Methodological approaches to researching stalkerware are often somewhat replicable but also quite varied. There seems to be a high concentration among three broad categories of methodology in particular:
    • content analysis (e.g. examining the marketing of apps);
    • technical analysis (e.g. mapping functionality); and
    • legal analysis (e.g. inspecting policies that may relate to stalkerware use in IPV in a particular region).
  • At first glance, much of the research seems to be concentrated in Australia, the United States of America, and Canada. Anecdotally, researchers have indicated a strong base of funding and political will in Australia in particular – which, through connections among researchers, has been brought over to Canada. This may indicate regions where this phenomenon is gaining more awareness, has more robust legislation rooting out stalkerware use, or other factors.
  • Research in various sectors has gone a long way towards increasing awareness of the issue of stalkerware in IPV, but the level of awareness varies significantly among communities both of research and of practice.
  • Some of the researchers we’ve interviewed have explicitly stated a need for our research – a reassuring sign!

How can you take part?

Jay, Maddalena and Thomas are candidates on the Digital Technologies and Policy MPA at UCL STEaPP. For more details on the MPA and how to apply, visit the STEaPP website. 

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