Over the last year, Eva Galperin says she’s learned the signs: the survivors of domestic abuse who come to her describing how their tormentors seem to know everyone they’ve called, texted, and even what they discussed in their most private conversations. How their abusers seem to know where they’ve been and sometimes even turn up at those locations to menace them. How they flaunt photos mysteriously obtained from the victim’s phone, sometimes using them for harassment or blackmail. And how none of the usual remedies to suspected hacking—changing passwords, setting up two-factor authentication—seem to help.
The reason those fixes don’t work, in these cases, is because the abuser has deeply compromised the victim’s phone itself. The stalker doesn’t have to be a skilled hacker; they just need easily accessible consumer spyware and an opportunity to install it on their target’s device. An entire industry of that so-called spouseware, or stalkerware, has grown in recent years, one that Galperin argues represents a deeply underestimated scourge of digital privacy.
“Full access to someone’s phone is essentially full access to someone’s mind,” says Galperin, a security researcher who leads the Threat Lab of the digital civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The people who end up with this software on their phones can become victims of physical abuse, of physical stalking. They get beaten. They can be killed. Their children can be kidnapped. It’s the small end of a very large, terrifying wedge.”