“You have put on green lingerie”: the harassing message that generated an alliance against the applications that spy on us | Technology
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“You’re wearing green lingerie.” This message came to a 34-year-old woman from his ex-partner, from whom he had separated after a toxic relationship. The victim could not understand how the man knew that detail. She was scared, she told her family, who did not believe her suspicions, initially, and attributed it to a coincidence. But the messages with personal information that her ex-partner should not have known about continued. Ultimately, they discovered that the stalker had controlled all of the victim’s messaging programs and devices, right down to the cameras and microphones. “It was the first case that came to Stop Gender Violence seven years ago,” recalls its president, Encarnación Iglesias. Since then, in collaboration with twenty technology companies that make up an alliance against stalkerware, which includes the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) and Kaspersky, and which has the support of Interpol, have not stopped receiving cases. “It’s espionage, let’s not give it weird names,” Iglesias warns.
Marc Rivero, security researcher at Kaspersky, explains that this practice is carried out through applications that are installed on the victim’s phone, and other devices, which allow the attacker to monitor data, such as the victim’s location, calls and messages, images or the activation of cameras and sound receptors.
Rivero points out that they are often installed without the victim’s knowledge when the device goes out of control for a few minutes. “They can be purchased or installed from the usual application platforms, although the latter do not have the power of others that are not free,” he adds.
The Kaspersky researcher points out that their use is illicit and illegitimate if you do not have the consent of the parties and that they are usually disguised as programs for parental control, object location or anti-theft, antivirus and even flashlights (“Why do you need a flashlight?” flashlight location data?” he warns). Others, directly, carry the word spy in her name. Small devices (such as key rings) are also used to locate objects that are inadvertently introduced into the victim’s belongings. A more sophisticated group is not even visible in the list of installed applications. Encarnación Iglesias adds that “there are even tutorials on the best-known video platforms to install them.”
“Spy applications must be distinguished from those used to follow a person with their consent, such as those used by some young people, mostly girls, to make sure the return home has been completed without problems,” explains Rovira. Iglesias adds parental programs, “which are totally legal”, as she clarifies, “because it is supposed to be installed for the protection of minors”. “The key is that the people involved have openly given their consent,” says the Kaspersky researcher. “The problem,” he warns, “is not the technology, but the misuse that is made of it.”
The company in which Rivero works, as part of the coalition against gender violence, details signs that should raise suspicion: the battery and mobile data run out much earlier than usual, some applications have dangerous unauthorized permissions, such as access to geolocation or accessibility (which allows a program to control phone settings and read and display text and images on the screen) or suspicious people show knowledge of details that are supposedly not public.
This last aspect is one of the most complicated to determine a case of espionage because, as Iglesias explains, “through our terminals we ourselves are releasing continuous information in many media: if you are well, ill, happy, with whom… We do not have take into account that type of situation and then we are surprised that the attackers can have information ”.
In this sense, Nishanth Sastry, principal investigator at the University of Surrey, explains: “A common response I hear when people talk about internet security is that their lives are boring and therefore there is nothing that can be exploited. . I’m afraid from my experience that this is simply not true; most of us have a large amount of personal data that, in the wrong hands, could be dangerous if circumstances change.”
Marc Rivero explains that there are spyware detection programs. Kaspersky has TinyCheck, which connects the phone, with a QR code, to a Wi-Fi access point (at home, for example) and analyzes the connections made and whether your phone is infected. There are other companies that facilitate similar programs and are part of the coalition against espionage and gender violence.
Difficulty is what Rivero considers the “game of cat and mouse”: harassment and espionage programs advance at the same pace as solutions. “The great luck that we have,” he clarifies, “is that there are many actors involved in this issue and, therefore, with the support and collaboration between these organizations, we are very up to date in terms of detecting this type of software. These programs have to send the data somewhere, they have to communicate the stolen information, and it’s in that communication layer that we’re going to get some of the detection.”
The motivation for the illegal and illegitimate installation of such programs (the annual report of Kaspersky The state of stalkerware brings to more than 50,000 annual victims in the world, with Russia, Brazil, the United States and India) is “to do harm”, according to Encarnación Iglesias. “Spyware makes our general life easier for the other person: where we are, what we talk about, with whom… and they install it, generally both men and women, their partners or ex-partners to continue having control.”
Motivation and consequences
The association Stop Gender Violence has detected uses to know in advance judicial strategies in cases of separation or to create states of anxiety or generate psychological damage. “Until now they are not common, but they are becoming more and more so,” explains Iglesias. Among adolescents it is not yet common, since they resort more to controlling the victim through direct control of the partner’s mobile or applications such as WhatsApp.
The consequences are devastating. The case with which the association chaired by Encarnación Iglesias began to study these practices ended in a judicial conviction for him and psychiatric treatment for her. “Her mother told me: And the psychological damage that my daughter has suffered and she is going to continue to suffer, who is going to reverse it? When is she going to have a normal life again?” She recalls.
The participation of associations such as that of Iglesias is fundamental. Not only because they are part of the coalition against these practices, facilitating the detection of the programs, but also because they advise the victims in the process and prepare the necessary expert reports, which can cost up to 500 euros with the help of the NGO.
In this sense, removing a spyware right away is not the ideal solution. The action may be noticed by the harasser, a circumstance that can trigger an episode of violence. In addition, the judge may need to access the mobile in the conditions in which the crime was committed and it is more efficient to acquire a new terminal.
In all cases, it is essential to denounce, since the president of the NGO calculates that espionage that reaches the police station does not even reach 20% of those that exist. This low incidence is influenced by the psychological state of the victim (some do not give it importance), the empathy of the security forces that attend to suspicions, and the social perception that digital violence is not that serious.
But it is necessary to break the vicious circle, according to Iglesias: “If we don’t denounce, there are no real statistics, nor are we going to advance, nor will these problems be heeded, nor will there be more convictions. You always have to report.”
The other front is the legislative. “The norm is far behind the internet”, concludes Iglesias. Unlawful stalking, stalking or stalking It is regulated by article 172 of the Criminal Code and provides for sentences of between three months and two years in prison. But the same rule requires a prior complaint and establishes that the attack must be insistent and repeated and seriously alter the development of their daily lives. According to the president of the NGO, the damage, especially the psychological one, can be produced with a single attack, with a single evidence of having been a victim.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States found that one in three women suffers gender violence, from physical and sexual assault to stalking, espionage or psychological assault. However, according to Amie Zarling, a psychologist at Iowa State University and the author of a study published in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology“this is not reported”.