Spyware apps that allow people to spy on each other are not only hard to notice and detect, they also pose a serious threat to the privacy and security of the victims, according to a new study by computer scientists from New York and San Diego.
The researchers analyzed 14 popular spyware apps for Android phones and found that they can covertly record text messages, emails, photos, voice calls, and other sensitive information from the victim’s device and send it to a remote web portal. The abusers can then access this information at any time.
Spyware apps are often marketed as tools to monitor underage children or employees using their employer’s equipment. However, they are also frequently used by abusers to secretly spy on their spouses or partners. The researchers say that these apps are easy to install and use, requiring only temporary access to the victim’s device and little technical expertise.
Spyware has become an increasingly serious problem in recent years. According to Norton Labs, the number of devices with spyware apps in the United States increased by 63% between September 2020 and May 2021. A similar report by Avast in the United Kingdom recorded a 93% increase in the use of spyware apps over a similar period.
The researchers warn that spyware apps not only violate the privacy of the victims but also expose them to further risks. They found that most of the spyware apps they tested had poor security practices and leaked sensitive data over insecure channels or stored it on unencrypted servers. This means that anyone with malicious intent could potentially access or intercept this data and use it for identity theft, blackmail, or other crimes.
The researchers advise users to check their privacy dashboard and the listing of all apps in settings regularly to see if their device has been infected by one of these apps. They also recommend using strong passwords, encryption tools, antivirus software, and VPN services to protect their devices and data from unauthorized access.
“This is a real-life problem and we want to raise awareness for everyone, from victims to the research community,” said Enze Liu, the first author of the paper No Privacy Among Spies: Assessing the Functionality and Insecurity of Consumer Android Spyware Apps and a computer science Ph.D. student at UC San Diego.
Liu and his colleagues will present their work at the Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium July 10-15, 2023 in Zurich,