What Is Stalkerware? How to Find and Remove Stalkerware

Though the Internet provides many useful resources, it also presents personal dangers. Many stalkers use a type of malware called stalkerware to track and endanger their victims. However, stalkerware software and apps are possible to avoid. In this article, learn how to detect and remove stalkerware so that you can stay safe from cyber harassment, protect yourself, and take legal action if needed.

What is stalkerware?

Stalkerware is a type of spyware that, as the name implies, monitors a person or their device activity without their knowledge or their consent. Much like how a person with a physical stalker is unaware that they’re being watched, victims of stalkerware don’t realize that someone else is tracking their activity.

An ominous figure using stalkerware on a computer

Someone else – whether it be a spouse, a parent, or a completely separate third party – installs the stalkerware and provides that person access to the victim’s device. This, in turn, provides the watcher with a host of information about their victim.

What kind of information does stalkerware collect?

Perpetrators often install stalkerware with the intent of tracking a victim’s movements, messages, phone calls, emails, or social media activity. However, this type of spyware is capable of much more. Stalkerware applications can collect data like GPS location, call logs, text messages, photos and videos, web browsing history, and app activity. With certain types, the perpetrator may also access the victim’s individual keystrokes, which lets them piece together the victim’s passwords, notes, and anything else they may type into their device.

The information this malware collects typically then goes to a remote server where the stalker can access it online. Sometimes, it has the ability to send updates right to the stalker when the victim performs certain actions or uses certain apps.

How is stalkerware installed?

Stalkers can install malware on a victim’s device in several different ways. In most cases, the person installing it has direct physical access to the device – like a spouse, parent, or friend. In these instances, the person may install the stalkerware manually.

However, it’s not impossible to install stalkerware remotely. Here are three of the most common ways that perpetrators install stalkerware without direct access to a device:

  • Phishing emails. Phishing emails, which trick users into downloading and installing software through cleverly-worded emails, is a common vehicle for stalkerware installation.
  • Malicious links. Many stalkers also use malicious links to get their victims to download the necessary software. The user believes they’re clicking on a link to update an app or download a game, but in truth, the link downloads malicious spyware.
  • App stores. Some stalkerware apps are available for users to download from app stores like the Google Play store. They're available for both iOS devices and Android devices. These apps appear harmless – disguised perhaps as a calculator app or utility app – but they are actually able to provide the stalker access to the victim’s device and activity.

If the person sending these links or recommending these apps is someone you trust, it may be almost impossible to realize that the links or programs aren’t what they seem. Be vigilant in what you click on and download, and err on the side of caution when in doubt.

How to detect stalkerware

Detecting stalkerware on a device can prove to be difficult given the evasive, hidden nature of the software. By design, it’s meant to operate in the background of your device and go undetected. However, that doesn’t mean that detecting it is impossible. Follow these steps to try and locate any stalkerware on your device.

  • Check for unknown apps. Look for any apps you don’t remember installing on your device yourself, even if they look harmless. They may be disguised stalkerware apps installed by someone else.
  • Look for unusual device behavior. If your device runs slower, crashes more frequently, glitches often, or displays random pop-up ads, be wary. These are all signs of malware. Similarly, if you notice your data usage spiked recently, that could indicate a malware or stalkerware infection.
  • Run an anti-malware software program. Run a scan on your device using a reputable antivirus or anti-malware program. The report will indicate any issues or bugs found on your device, which will then let you take the proper steps to get rid of them.
  • Check for unknown processes. Access your Windows Task Manager or Mac Activity Monitor to check for any running procedures you don’t recognize. If you find any, shut them down manually.

If you do find this type of malware, the next step is to remove it. Depending on the type of stalkerware, this may be difficult, as some kinds resist removal.

How to detect stalkerware on Android phone

One of the best ways to detect stalkerware on your Android phone is to turn on Google Play Protect. On Android phones, Google Play Protect scans the apps on your device for malicious activity. Though it should be turned on automatically, check to make sure no one has interfered with your device to turn it off.

Check your apps listed in your settings as well. If you see apps listed on your device that you don't recognize - even if they aren't named suspiciously or don't sound like stalkerware - uninstall them from your device.

Look for any device admin apps as well, as these essentially give the user full control over a device. Check your security settings under Device admin apps; there should be no active apps.

How to remove stalkerware

First, try removing the stalkerware as you found it – meaning if you found a strange app, delete it, and if you spotted an unfamiliar process running in Task Manager or Activity Monitor, shut it down. However, if this doesn’t work, you may need to perform a factory reset on your device. This will erase all data from your device, including the stalkerware. Back up your information to a cloud service before resetting to make restoration easier.

Once you’ve removed the stalkerware, change your passwords and account logins. Though it may be tedious, make sure to change the passwords of all accounts containing sensitive information, including your bank accounts, credit card accounts, social media accounts, and email accounts. Furthermore, enable two-factor authentication in order to receive notices if someone tries to access your account without authorization.

How to remove stalkerware from Android

If you've found stalkerware on your phone, the best step is to download antivirus or anti-stalkerware app to remove it from your device. These apps scan and remove all detectable spyware and stalkerware. You can also manually uninstall apps from your settings; if you believe you've found a spyware app or suspicious admin app, follow the steps to uninstall the app from your device.

How to prevent stalkerware

Preventing stalkerware is possible, though it may not always be easy. To prevent it and improve your system's security and safety, follow these tips.

  • Use available security features. Use the built-in security features available on your phone or computer and enable them. These features may vary by device, but they'll help protect against external threats.
  • Install antivirus software. Installing antivirus software on your device won't just help with stalkerware threats. It also keeps spyware, Trojans, and other malware threats at bay.
  • Lock your phone. Though it sounds simple, using a strong password on your phone and locking it when not in use helps prevent unwanted access.
  • Update your accounts regularly. Make sure to periodically change your passwords and use two-factor authentication where possible to keep your accounts secure.
  • Keep your systems up to date. System updates help bolster a device's security, which could make the difference in blocking threats or dangers.

Preventing stalkerware is easier than removing it, so take as many of the above steps as possible to help secure your device and your data.

Examples of stalkerware

Though stalkerware sounds foreign and intimidating, it’s unfortunately more commonplace than many realize.

Parental control devices and spouse tracking apps, for example, can easily be used as stalkerware apps in the wrong context. Using Life360 to track your child is permissible under the law as long as they know you’re doing it; if they don’t, then technically, such an instance is considered stalkerware. Websites that allow you to enter someone’s phone number or data to monitor them remotely are stalkerware and are illegal. Many abusers also use these apps to control and monitor their victims.

As an employee, employers can monitor your activity at work on a company-owned device. However, if an employer monitors your personal device or activity off work time, it is illegal. Ultimately, many well-intentioned or helpful monitoring tools have the capability to become stalkerware; it all depends on the way they’re used.

A phone being watched by stalkerware apps

Not all stalkerware is covert, though. Keyloggers are one common type of malware that serves as stalkerware. Keyloggers record every keystroke made on a person’s device, providing the stalker access to all passwords, messages, and searches. Other types, like remote access Trojans, give attackers complete access to a victim’s device.

If you encounter any type of stalkerware, make sure to act quickly to protect yourself and your information.

Stalkerware is a serious violation of privacy, not to mention the danger it poses to victims. Furthermore, many countries have made stalkerware illegal under privacy laws. If you realize you’ve been a victim of this type of malicious software attack and feel threatened, take your case to law enforcement. Though they may not be able to find the source of the attack, they can log the incident and keep it on file should any further incidents occur where the perpetrator can be identified.

You can also find more information on taking legal action against stalkerware through the Coalition Against Stalkerware, a group founded to fight back against growing stalkerware threats.

What if I don't detect stalkerware, but I think I'm being stalked?

Being stalked and finding stalkerware on your device aren't mutually exclusive. Even if you scan your device and don't find any stalkerware, someone could still be watching you online or monitoring you based on your digital activity. Improving your online safety is the best way to make sure that nobody can monitor you privately.

If you're worried about being stalked, make sure to review your privacy settings on your phone and your social media accounts. We tend to overshare on social media, and if you don't regularly review your social media privacy settings, you could accidentally be sharing information to someone you don't want to.

Public posts, especially those with tagged locations, show strangers and other unwanted viewers your location data. To best protect yourself against stalkers, make your profiles private and only share posts with friends.

If you're not publicly sharing information on social media, then make sure that nobody else in your life has access to your online accounts or email, as these could reveal other sensitive data about your life.

Likewise, review your passwords; if a significant other, parent, or friend ever had access to your accounts and you use the same password on multiple accounts, it could put you at risk. Never use the same password twice.

Finally, if your accounts are secure and you've gone through the online privacy checklist to assess your digital activity, it's possible your information was leaked in a company data breach. If this is the case, make sure to change your passwords to new, strong passwords on every account and monitor your sensitive accounts - like your online banking accounts and email - for suspicious activity.

Frequently asked questions

Can stalkerware be detected?

Though difficult to detect, the right methods make stalkerware detection possible. Try running an anti-malware scan to find any unfamiliar or dangerous programs or applications.

What are some symptoms of stalkerware?

Symptoms include slow device speeds, random glitches or crashes, and unexpected pop-up ads.

Is stalkerware an app?

It can be an app, though it also comes in other forms. Many surveillance apps or spyware apps disguise themselves as common utilities, like calculators or file storage apps, on mobile devices. Users must stay aware in order to protect themselves from these deceptive apps on their mobile phones.