Under the surface, spyware, stalkerware and bossware all do the same thing. They are designed to record what you do, where you go, who you talk to and what you say, and to share that information with somebody else, secretly.
They can monitor what you type, read the messages you send and receive, capture what’s on your screen, track your location, listen to your microphone and watch you through your camera.
The difference between them comes down to how they’re sold, why they’re used and how security software treats them.
Spyware is used by criminals to gather information that can be used to make money, such as banking or social media passwords. People who use spyware generally don’t care who they’re spying on, they just want to spy on as many people as possible.
Criminals fool people into installing spyware on their phones by disguising it as something useful and innocuous, such as a calculator, flashlight or weather app. Spyware is universally recognised as a bad thing, and it’s normally treated the same was as a computer virus by security software.
Stalkerware is used by people, such as parents or jealous partners, who want to spy on a particular person. It works exactly the same way as spyware but it doesn’t try to hide what it’s for. It enables a user to remotely monitor the activities that take place on another person’s device without their permission.
To get around app store rules against stalkerware it may market itself as a way to keep tabs on children or elderly relatives. Once it’s installed it will often try to hide itself and use a dull and misleading name, like “Wi-Fi”, to avoid drawing attention to itself.
Stalkerware is installed on a victim’s phone without their knowledge and can cause enormous distress. It is sometimes part of a pattern of abuse and can be used as intimidation in abusive relationships.
This anonymous stalkerware victim’s experience is, sadly, not unusual:
My ex-husband to be is obsessed with me and bent on destroying my life. He has placed GPS tracking devices in my vehicle, spyware on cell phones and computers … Hijacked my FB , email and text. He enrolled my vehicle and me in some type of on line tracking game. I am harassed 24/7.
In most cases, installing stalkerware on somebody’s phone without their consent is a crime, but these are murky waters.
Some people who make stalkerware try to protect themselves with statements that say their apps should not be used without the device owner’s consent. Because it’s legal to use stalkerware in this way, security software may ignore it.
Bossware is software that companies use to monitor employees.
A lot of people are concerned that bossware is just as invasive as stalkerware and spyware, and collects too much information. The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), which campaigns on behalf of civil liberties, wrote recently that:
…bossware puts workers’ privacy and security at risk by logging every click and keystroke, covertly gathering information for lawsuits, and using other spying features that go far beyond what is necessary and proportionate to manage a workforce.
As the number of people working from home has increased, there’s been an increase in the use of bossware.
Like stalkerware, bossware can be used legally, so security software may be reluctant to detect it.
We believe that what happens on your phone should be up to you. If the Trustd app detects spyware, stalkerware or bossware on your phone it will tell you about it and let you make a decision about what to do.