You’ve probably heard stories of governments tracking the online actions of persons of interest through surreptitious digital means. But now, the very same tools are being used by tens of thousands of people around the world as an online form of domestic abuse.
We’re talking about stalkerware, which is exactly as it sounds: a breed of software designed to keep a watchful eye over an unsuspecting victim by tracking online activity, offline movements and recording all of their conversations.
Stalkerware is on the rise in the consumer market, and its explosive growth is indicative of the troubling lack of diversity in the tech development world. Any woman who has experienced online abuse — that is, all of them — would flag this software as problematic. But when development teams are homogeneous, made up of men who have never experienced this type of abuse, we see the proliferation of online tools with dangerous real-life consequences.
Stalkerware is sometimes referred to as “spouseware,” and companies will occasionally boast about giving users the ability to tail their significant others.
Like other applications of malware, this kind of domestic spyware makes its way onto the victims’ devices without their knowledge, often through a phishing attack whereby the person being stalked is fooled into downloading a harmful app or clicking on a malicious link.
In some cases, especially in close domestic relationships, the person doing the tracking is able to install the software directly onto the victim’s device.
It’s all very troubling, but when profit is the driving factor in technological innovation, tools like these eavesdropping apps can quickly and easily get into the wrong hands. Indeed, this powerful and inexpensive software is now available to anyone with an internet connection. In fact, a 2014 NPR investigation that surveyed 70 domestic violence shelters revealed that three quarters of them had provided refuge to victims whose abusers had tracked them using this kind of stalking software.
Given that FBI data going as far back as 2002 shows that more than two people — predominantly women — in the United States are killed each day by their partners, someone could and should have flagged the potential misuse of this kind of software. But the people who are generally most sensitive to these issues are the ones that are notoriously absent from tech development teams.
While a team full of men might be oblivious to the potential misuse of these types of apps, there are few women who wouldn’t flag the potential for stalking technology to go dangerously awry. After all, no matter who she is or where she comes from, chances are, she’s dealt with her fair share of creeps online.
And offline, she’s been raised to look over her shoulder when she’s walking down the street alone at night. A woman’s life experience trains her to recognize that technologies like this can be used against her, even if she herself has never been the victim of domestic abuse.
Of course, diversity on tech teams isn’t only about preventing bad apps from reaching the market. We want a multitude of voices and people from different backgrounds informing the important tech decisions made every day in order to see to advances that benefit people from all walks of life.
But having diverse development teams is an important way to mitigate unforeseen consequences. We all have blind spots; making sure the minds behind new technologies don’t all share the same ones helps to ensure that dangerous software doesn’t become mainstream.