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Spyware in relationships a worrying new trend

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-11-18 10:00

Since China's new domestic laws were introduced in 2016, safety for women and vulnerable individuals in marriages has improved and such legislation is a force for good in this new age of equality. However, in both the East and West the rise of spyware, which allows jealous or manipulative individuals to spy on their partners' messages, is also on the rise. Everything from text messages to phone calls and even a live view of the victim's screen activity can be voyeuristically viewed remotely from any location. Technology is now threatening to destabilize relationships, with manipulative individuals now possessing more opportunities to control and dominate their partners.

In April, cybersecurity company Kaspersky found 58,000 Android users who had spyware installed on their phones without their knowledge. Spyware, or as it is often dubbed "spouseware", must be installed on the victim's phone, but can be hidden to run in the background with no obvious app icon to raise suspicions. So malicious and effective is this type of software, that one may be forgiven for wondering why such products are available for the mainstream market in the first place. The applications are sold through completely legal and legitimate companies, often sold under the pretense of personal security, child protection or employee monitoring. However, the overwhelming majority of cases do involve adults spying on their unwitting partners.

Spyware can affect anyone. A close relative or friend could be spied on while making an intimate disclosure. A disturbing concept in itself, in most countries it is also illegal, including China, and would be legitimate grounds for court proceedings or criminal action. Not only is the victim's personal information compromised by the stalker, but companies which run these apps also have a history of data leaks and breaches, meaning that victims' private information or chat content can spill into the public domain, without the victim's knowledge. The lack of secure servers also means that spyware company employees may be able to access victims' data.

This is a serious issue, and one that could potentially escalate to real world violence and even more serious crimes of passion. In 2014, National Public Radio, or NPR, in the United States reported that 85 percent of domestic abuse shelters said they had experience working with victims who had their live GPS locations tracked, a common feature offered in stalkerware. A further 75 percent stated that they had worked with victims who had experienced their phone calls being eavesdropped on. Fortunately, with shelters, women and vulnerable individuals are able to find help, and nip any such abusive behavior in the bud before things escalate. It is a sad fact however, that the majority of rape and kidnapping victims know their assailants personally. It is therefore of paramount importance that telltale signs of serious abusive crime is noticed early on, and this can start from analyzing a victim's smartphone.

Regulators and authorities would do well to educate the public on this worrying trend, and this is something that can start early on, even in secondary schools. Some tech savvy teens would fit the demographic of overzealous admirers or jealous lovers, and such behavior should be stopped before it becomes normalized. App stores should also ban any spyware apps that do not notify the user that their activity is being monitored. Technology should be an aid to help loved ones stay in contact with each other, sharing photos, chat and memories in real time, wherever they are in the world. It should not be encouraged to satisfy our darker appetites.

For the time being, it makes sense to be vigilant in the face of this possibility.

Barry He London-based columnist for China Daily

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