By now we all know our phones, often tucked away in our pockets, largely used for communicating, documenting, and coordinating, also make us vulnerable to prying and spying.
They can identify our location and record our messages and conversations. They also host our intimate photos and videos, our personal to-do-lists and weekly planners. As privacy activist and hacker Eva Galperin puts it in this interview: “Access to someone’s phone is the next best thing to access to someone’s mind.” It’s for this reason that intelligence agencies and police departments all over the world have developed the technologies to readily tap into our phones.
But it’s not just the authorities: those closest to us—partners or family members—can also exploit these devices for espionage, harassment, and even physical forms of abuse. A quick web search will serve up a dozen dodgy companies that, for a modest fee, will sell anyone this “stalkerware.” Some of these companies claim their products are simply parental control tools, but a recent report on that “predator in your pocket” released by The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab shows a much darker side: “we found that the companies included in our study overwhelmingly and deliberately marketed their products, to at least some extent, for enabling or facilitating intimate partner surveillance. As such, the dual-use nature of many of these applications should be understood as enabling abusive surveillance, first, and being used for ostensibly legitimate child and employee surveillance, second.” The report, which gathers data from several surveys on domestic violence in different countries, showcases the alarming number of men who use this software to hunt women down.
Eva Galperin, the self-declared outrage fairy, has made it her mission to out these dirtbags. In January 2018, she started exposing the malicious side of spouseware, a variant of stalkerware. Currently the Director of Cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), her decade-long security work has focused on helping some of the most vulnerable populations around the world, which she does by opposing what she calls privacy nihilism—the sentiment that because surveillance is so ubiquitous, all we can do is put up with it.
Galperin’s witty and biting tweets have earned her a loyal following. She recently tweeted: “If you are a woman who has been sexually abused by a hacker who threatened to compromise your devices, contact me and I will make sure they are properly examined.” She was subsequently flooded with calls and emails from scores of victims sharing their horrific stories of physical and verbal abuse. After months of trying to help them, she took the fight to the next level and addressed the jerks making money off of their surveillance tools. In Singapore, where this video was recorded, she also publicly shamed security companies who did not flag the stalkerware as viruses capable of compromising phones. She later wrote in a laconic tweet: “That time, I got really mad and decided to kill an industry.”
She hasn’t yet managed to tear down the industry, but the fight is far from over. Eva is ready, firm and smiling: “I’ve got a game plan. I’m gonna fight. We’re gonna cause some trouble. It will be fun.”