Spyware becomes a tool for stalking, domestic abuse

Given recent stories about online spying, you might immediately think of either criminal hackers breaking into personal data at a retailer like Target (TGT) or the National Security Agency monitoring communications. But a story out of Australia is a good reminder of how so-called spyware has become a major tool in stalking and domestic violence cases.

According to a 2013 study by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria, more than 96 percent of domestic violence workers said perpetrators used mobile technologies to stalk women, including GPS-based software to locate their positions. The problem doesn't end at Australia's borders.

In the U.S., cases of cyberstalking happen on a regular basis, some of which can end in violence. The hardware and software are often marketed as tools to track kids, monitor employees or catch cheating spouses. Physical access to a phone, vehicle or premises and spending as little as $50 to $85 can allow one person to monitor another to an astonishing degree, according to KXBT-TV, which tested special smartphone software:

"All phone calls are recorded. Once you log into your account, you can see when the call was made, the number associated with the person on the other side and even listen in.

The same goes for text messages. Even more shocking, if a phone call wasn't taking place but the phone was on, it could be used to bug a room and even record video. The GPS also allows someone to track where you are at any given moment of the day."

Commonly available surveillance technology allows people to "intercept all manner of communication such as audio, email, instant messaging, text messaging and computer passwords," sending the information to the watcher's remote location, according to the U.S.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

GPS-tracking software on a phone or a device planted on a car can precisely trace someone's movements in real time or after the fact. Tiny video cameras or even software misusing a computer webcam can give one person a direct window into the life of another.

How legal is all of this? There's no single clear answer. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that even countries with apparently solid cybercrime laws may have gaps in coverage. EPIC notes that specific twists in laws may leave some activities legal. For example, software that captures a screenshot may not count as communications interception because the shot occurs only after a message has already been received.

Or in the case of a married couple, community property laws may allow the use of GPS to track a vehicle in which both partners have a financial interest.

If you think you're being cyberstalked, security company Symantec suggests you take the following steps:

  • Use strong passwords that would be difficult to guess, and change them frequently.
  • Lock down privacy settings for any social media or other online systems so that information is available only to people you trust.
  • Run security software that can detect the presence of spyware.
  • If you think your physical safety is in danger, only use public computers or phones to ask for help.
You could also add asking a trusted mechanic to examine your car for a potential tracking device or hiring a technology expert to check a computer or phone. Better to be embarrassed at being unreasonably paranoid than to learn the hard way you weren't suspicious enough.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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