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Unethical Stalkerware Apps Offer Parents Tools to Spy on their Children

Avast explores the capabilities, messaging and psychological tools these unethical apps use and shares advice for parents on how best to keep their children safe online

Avast, a global leader in digital security and privacy products, and member of the Coalition Against Stalkerware, carried out an analysis of the advertising messaging and positioning used by the top nine most used stalkerware apps detected by Avast’s antivirus within its user base. While stalkerware is sometimes targeted at jealous partners for spying on their spouse and for employers to spy on their staff, the findings show that all of the apps target parents to secretly monitor their children’s online behavior.

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As Avast’s CISO, Jaya Baloo, said, “Stalkerware can be installed on somebody’s phone without their consent to stealthily monitor their communications activities, which we consider highly unethical. With this study, we took a closer look at the messaging used by these apps to understand the psychological tools they use to attract users. Unfortunately, these apps are preying on parents’ fears of protecting their children. Creating a safe environment for your child starts with trust and while parental controls can be helpful, stalkerware is not the answer. Children have a fundamental right to privacy and independence as well and staying informed about your child’s online activities is important and requires consent. Transparency and open conversations are key.”

Avast’s analysis showed that all nine of these solutions promise parents can monitor children without them knowing for “the price of a daily cup of coffee”. These apps position themselves as serving a greater good and promise to help keep kids safe from online dangers by:

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  • Monitoring messaging apps and SMS
  • Monitoring and recording calls, as well as seeing call logs and deleted logs
  • Location tracking
  • Accessing multimedia files such as pictures, videos, audios
  • Monitoring different social media platforms
  • Monitoring web browsing and access navigation history, accessing the microphone in the background to record noises or conversations
  • Remotely controlling the smartphone and blocking websites or apps from being used on the phone
  • Checking the app usage of the owner of the device

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Avast’s analysis found that messaging used by stalkerware apps to rationalize their use included:

  • Fear-mongering: Many of these apps try scare tactics, focusing on online and offline threats and what could happen to kids, such as cyberbullying, access to inappropriate content, and predators. They employ statistics to highlight the different real or emotional threats children can face and use examples like bad guys lurking in deserted parks.
  • Appeal to emotion: Most of these apps try to relate to the potential customer by reinforcing the feelings of anxiety and concern they might already have.
  • The promise of benefits: These apps try to rationalize their use by saying they can help “keep your children on the right track”.
  • A sense of majority: The websites use phrases that imply that other people are using their apps with great results, stating between 100,000 customers to 3 million users. One of the apps inconsistently reports 100,000 and 2M users on the same page, which makes the information even less credible and should be a red flag for users of any app.
  • Fake user reviews: Four out of the nine stalkerware apps analyzed feature user reviews which are likely to be fake. For example, on some websites, the same reviews, word by word, are attributed to different people, and in one case the exact same reviews were used across two “competing” platforms. In another case, the same review included in the stalkerware app is reused in a different non-related app, bringing the authenticity of these reviews into question.

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