The use of surveillance software by abusive spouses to monitor the phones and computers of their partners secretly has reached “epidemic proportions” and police are ill-equipped to tackle it, domestic violence campaigners have warned.
Helplines and women’s refuge charities have reported a dramatic rise in the use of spyware apps to eavesdrop on the victims of domestic violence via their mobiles and other electronic devices, enabling abusers clandestinely to read texts, record calls and view or listen in on victims in real time without their knowledge.
The Independent has established that one device offering the ability to spy on phones is being sold by a major British high-street retailer via its website. The proliferation of software packages, many of which are openly marketed as tools for covertly tracking a “cheating wife or girlfriend” and cost less than £50, has prompted concern that police and the criminal justice system in Britain are failing to understand the extent of the problem and tackle offenders.
A survey by Women’s Aid, the domestic violence charity, found that 41 per cent of domestic violence victims it helped had been tracked or harassed using electronic devices. A second study this year by the Digital Trust, which helps victims of online stalking, found that more than 50 per cent of abusive partners used spyware or some other form of electronic surveillance to stalk their victims.
Research shows that abusive spouses also increasingly use their children to gain access to an estranged or former partner, using Christmas or birthday presents such as phones, computers and toys pre-loaded with spyware to infiltrate a target’s home.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, told The Independent: “Domestic abuse is about control and perpetrators will use any means available to maintain and increase their control.
“We increasingly hear stories of abusers adding tracking software to phones, placing spyware on personal computers and using the internet to gather information about their partner.
“However, in many cases the police are not trained to recognise and understand the impact of online abuse, including tracking, and action is rarely taken against abusers.”
Campaigners are particularly concerned at the insidious nature of spyware, which once installed on a computer or smartphone is virtually untraceable to the user. Nearly all offer a GPS tracking function, allowing the user to pinpoint an individual to within a few metres, as well as covert access to keystrokes, texts, pictures and emails.
The Independent has been told of a case where a woman had a conversation she had held with a friend on her mobile played back to her by her partner, who had bugged her phone with spyware. He then told her he had connections with criminals and had had people killed.
In another incident, an abusive husband managed to gain access to his spouse’s eBay account using spyware and found a delivery address. He then lay in wait and attacked his wife in an assault so vicious that she lost sight in one eye.
The software is being routinely used to exert psychological pressure or for harassment, allowing controlling or potentially violent men to confront their victims over their movements. In failed relationships, tales are rife of email accounts being hacked to send abusive messages to a spouse’s friends or employer.
The tracking packages are widely available on the internet with many marketed as ways for employers to monitor the movements of their workers or for parents to check electronically on the whereabouts of their children. But others openly boast that they can detect infidelity.
One product, FlexiSPY, is marketed with a heavy emphasis on what it describes as the superior ability of women to lie. Its marketing material states: “Women who do cheat usually do so in a well-planned and discrete [sic] fashion, making it exceedingly difficult for their man to know they’re being cuckolded… Women are much more capable of looking you straight in the eye and lying.”
It adds: “FlexiSPY lets you conduct ‘SpyCalls’, remotely activating the phone’s microphone to listen in on its surroundings. This is particularly useful once you confirm she’s not actually where she told you she was. You could actually capture a recording of her in the act.”
Campaigners are concerned that while the use of spyware to stalk or eavesdrop on a victim is illegal in Britain, the law contains multiple loopholes and cases can be difficult to prove. While most companies marketing spyware are based abroad, the eavesdropping technology is also available in Britain through specialist retailers and also the website of the high-street electronics retailer Maplin.
The company has been marketing a “Cell phone spy software” device sold for £99.99 with the ability “to monitor SMS text messages, emails and calls and also keep track of a mobile phone’s location”. The website of the manufacturer, Cell Phone Recon, states that the user of the targeted mobile device will not see the application running.
The product listing featured a question from a customer stating she wanted to use the software to spy on her partner’s texts. Maplin’s reply stated: “Installing on the phone is very fast and simple, you will be able to read all texts sent and received in full.”
After it was contacted by The Independent, Maplin changed the description of the device to “Cell phone back-up software” and amended the answer to the customer’s question to make it clear that it should only be used with the permission of a phone’s owner.
In a statement, the company said: “This product is a brilliant piece of innovation and, if used for the purpose intended, gives users peace of mind. Maplin does not condone using any of its products surreptitiously or as a means of tracking people without their consent and recommends that the product is used legally.”
“Whilst I am not aware of significant levels of reporting to the police, we are determined to support all those affected by coercive and threatening behaviour.”