Parental Control Apps: Beware of ‘Stalkerware”

By: Yasmin Ranade

June 21, 2021

Concerned parents understandably want to protect their children – tweens to young adults – from cyberbulling, adult content, and other inappropriate online activity. However, parents should be cautious about downloading apps that stalk or spy on their children when they are online as these may expose you and your family to privacy problems.

Illegitimate applications available for download that claim to help monitor and protect your children’s online behaviour could actually provide unplanned access to your family’s private information.

I asked Lukas Stefano, a malware researcher with Internet security company ESET, to explain more about “Stalkerware”.

Lukas Stefano, ESET

“Stalkerware is monitoring software that is installed in the device of a victim without consent and hidden from view,” began Stefano. “The goal of a stalkerware is to snoop on personal activities of a victim like extracting received text messages, recording phone calls, obtaining location of a device, taking screenshots and photos, spying on social media and IM apps, and keylogging all victim activities,” added Stefano.

Simply put, said Stefano, “Stalkerware apps don’t provide actions to protect children, only spy on them.”

“In 2019 we detected 5 times more installs as in the previous year. In 2020 detection increased up to 48%,” shared Stefano.

In fact, according to Stefano, detection of stalkerware grew as follows:

2018 – 53,000+

2019 – 252,000+

2020 – 374,000+

Stated Stefano, “Based on our telemetry in 2020, Canada is in 29th place of Android stalkerware detection, which means thousands of occurrences [each year].”

Legitimate Parental Control Apps

“Legitimate parental [control] apps should be available in the Google Play store,” replied Stefano, “… [where] users can leave feedback …. Google, as a provider, makes sure these apps follow the app policy.” ESET parent control app and many others are available on Google Play.

“Once they are installed, the app shouldn’t be hidden from a view of a kid and [allows] kid-protecting actions by parents such as restricting access to the Internet at particular times, setting timers for playing games, disabling Internet during studying hours, forbidding visiting adult content website, etc.”

Social Media Safety Top Tips for youth

It can never be discussed enough: remind your children to interact on social media only with people they know.

Advised Stefano, “Don’t accept friend or chat requests from unknown profiles on social media, don’t share personal and private information publicly and use two-factor authentication in the case of attacker gets access to password to restrict his access to your social media account.”

With the many risks identified, Stefano also offered the following tips to ensure you keep the privacy of your child and family safe while also monitoring online activity:

  • Avoid applications that run in “stealth” mode. Stalkerware applications run in the background so that the person being monitored can’t tell the app is installed. Legitimate parental control applications are not hidden.
  • Talk to your kids. Be honest and clear about what they should and shouldn’t be doing online, and make it clear that you will be monitoring their phones and tablets, and what applications you have installed.
  • Inappropriate web content should be blocked. While stalkerware applications will simply spy on your child and what he or she is doing, real parental control apps will actively block innapropriate web content. Some even offer the ability to manage the time your child spends on each app.
  • Rely on brands you trust. When in doubt, only download applications or software from brands you know and trust and from official app stores. Many well-known cybersecurity companies offer parental control options designed for parents looking to keep their family safe, while also ensuring personal privacy protection.

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