The latest Kaspersky State of Stalkerware 2023 report reveals almost 31 000 mobile users worldwide were subjected to stalkerware, clandestine surveillance software utilised by domestic abusers to monitor their victims.

But it’s not just stalkerware software that is a problem, 40% of surveyed people worldwide stated they have experienced stalking or suspected being stalked.

Stalkerware typically masquerades as legitimate anti-theft or parental control apps on smartphones, tablets, and computers, but in reality, they are very different. Installed – usually without consent and notification of the person being tracked – they provide a perpetrator with the means to gain control over a victim’s life. Stalkerware capabilities vary depending on the application.

The State of Stalkerware is an annual report by Kaspersky which aims to provide a better understanding of the number of people affected by digital stalking globally. In 2023, Kaspersky data revealed 31 031 unique individuals around the world were affected by stalkerware, a 5,8% increase compared to 2022. The figures reverse the downward trend of 2021, confirming digital stalking continues to be a global problem.

According to the Kaspersky Security Network, in 2023, users in Russia, Brazil, and India were the top three countries most affected. Iran entered the top five in the previous year and remains. When compared to 2021, the top 10 affected countries have changed little. While Germany dropped from seven to 10, Saudi Ariba (ranked eighth in 2022) is not most affected this year.

Country Affected users
1 Russian Federation 9,890
2 Brazil 4,186
3 India 2,492
4 Iran 1,578
5 Turkey 1,063
6 Indonesia 871
7 United States of America 799
8 Yemen 624
9 Mexico 592
10 Germany 577

Top 10 countries most affected by stalkerware in the world in 2023

The spectrum of abuse is diverse, with over one-third (39%) of respondents worldwide reporting experiences of violence or abuse from a current or previous partner. Of those questioned for the report, 23% of people worldwide revealed they have encountered some form of online stalking from someone they were recently dating. Furthermore, overall, 40% reported experiencing stalking or suspecting being stalked.

On the other side, 12% admitted to installing or setting parameters on their partner’s phone, while 9% acknowledged pressuring their partner to install monitoring apps. Nevertheless, the notion of monitoring a partner without their awareness is disapproved by the majority of individuals (54%), reflecting a prevailing sentiment against such behaviour.

Regarding attitudes toward consensually monitoring a partner’s online activities, 45% of respondents express disapproval, highlighting the significance of privacy rights. Conversely, 27% support full transparency in relationships, viewing consensual monitoring as appropriate, while 12% deem it acceptable only when mutual agreement is reached.

“These findings highlight the delicate balance individuals strike between intimacy and safeguarding personal information,” says David Emm, security and data privacy expert at Kaspersky. “It’s positive to observe increased caution, especially regarding sensitive data like security device passwords.

“The reluctance to share such critical access aligns with cybersecurity principles. The willingness to share streaming service passwords and photos signifies a cultural shift, though individuals should recognise potential risks even in seemingly innocuous information sharing.

“These insights underscore the importance of fostering open communication within relationships, establishing clear boundaries, and promoting digital literacy. For security professionals, it reinforces the need for ongoing education on cybersecurity best practices and empowering individuals to make informed decisions about sharing personal information within relationships.”

The fight against stalkerware needs partnerships

In most countries around the world, use of stalkerware software is currently not prohibited but installing such an application on another individual’s smartphone without their consent is illegal and punishable.

However, it is the perpetrator who will be held responsible, not the developer of the application. Along with other related technologies, stalkerware is one element of tech-enabled abuse and often used in abusive relationships.

Erica Olsen, senior director of Safety Net Project, National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) in the US, comments on the report: “This report highlights both the prevalence of stalking behaviour perpetrated with technology and the related perceptions on privacy within intimate partner relationships.

“A significant portion of respondents reported they would willingly share some information, whether for safety reasons or otherwise. A small percentage, 4%, stated they reluctantly agreed to monitoring at their partner’s insistence – this is not the same as consent.

“It’s important to create a clear distinction between consensual sharing and non-consensual monitoring. Consent is agreement free of force or coercion.”

Emma Pickering, head of the technology-facilitated abuse and economic empowerment team at Refuge in the UK, says: “The statistics highlighted in this report are really concerning, but we are sadly not surprised.

“Here at Refuge, we are seeing an alarming increase in survivors reporting concerns relating to stalkerware. It is also very important to note that we rarely see any form of tech abuse used in isolation. Alongside stalkerware, abusers are often misusing other forms of technology to cause harm and distress.

“This is why we should always ensure, as agencies, we are completing a detailed tech assessment and supporting survivors to regain access to all accounts and devices.

“For this reason it is imperative that we continue to work together with the wider tech community to understand the technology being used, to try to prevent it being used for harm and to try and build in safety by design collaboratively.”