Forget biz insider threats for a moment – let's talk about partners turning rogue and installing spyware on phones

Light shined on lack of privacy controls for stalkerware


Analysis Cybersecurity vendors have long warned of insider threats in corporate environments, but less attention has been paid to an insider threat closer to home: abusive partners and family members.

In a paper recently published through the Journal of Cybersecurity, Cornell University assistant professor Karen Levy and security veteran Bruce Schneier argue that intimate relationships open the door to a set of privacy and security risks that haven't been anticipated or adequately addressed by the public, the technical community, and policymakers.

"We describe privacy threats that arise in our intimate relationships: families, romances, friendships," said Levy. "These threats are poorly understood by the privacy/security community – but are extremely common, disproportionately harm the less powerful, and should be taken seriously."

Levy observes that many of our privacy and security assumptions break down in the context of interpersonal relationships. For example, it's generally assumed an "attacker" does not have easy physical access to a target device, but that may not hold when the attacker is a child, partner, parent, or acquaintance.

"Intimate privacy threats arise in abusive contexts, but they can also arise in less nefarious situations, or as a component of genuine care," she said. "They may even be socially acceptable. That makes them complex ethically, and difficult to mitigate technically."

Not an uncommon problem

The paper reckons nearly one in three women, and one in six men, will experience abuse at some point, and that digital tools increasingly are being used to facilitate that, through location tracking, communication monitoring, or otherwise enabling harassment. This can include the installation of secret spyware on devices to monitor victims' every move.

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The challenge of dealing with privacy dynamics in intimate relationships arises from the frequent ambiguity of the situations and potentially conflicting motivations. Where most people would agree that a former partner should not be able to stalk or track them, they might have a harder time balancing legitimate medical concerns about an elderly parent with the parent's resistance to being surveilled by a caregiver.

"The line between watching and watching over is a blurry one," the paper states. "There are no bright-line rules for determining when duties of care and protection override privacy interests in intimate relationships, nor for whether intimate monitoring crosses a line of appropriateness."

The law often doesn't cover privacy violations when they're not egregious, the paper says, and it may even allow them – in Saudi Arabia, husbands have the right to control the movements of their wives.

The paper sketches out various relationship categories that device makers and legislators should consider. These include romantic partners, parents and children, the elderly with caregivers, and friends or roommates.

And it makes the case that device makers need to incorporate relationship dynamics into the design of their products, pointing to an incident in which an Australian woman's ex-boyfriend stalked her through an app integrated with her vehicle. He was able to do so because he helped her purchase the vehicle and had access to the car's registration number and - in turn - the app.

Don't hold your breath

Levy, in an email to The Register, said she doesn't expect a legal fix. "I am not holding my breath on national privacy legislation," she said.

"This is a problem that has to be addressed in a variety of ways. Technological design can go part of the way, law can go part of the way, and social norms and expectations can go part of the way – but it probably will take all three to really address this problem."

In a phone interview with The Register, Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, praised the paper and said there's a lot that both hardware and software makers can do to mitigate the effects of intimate partner violence using their products.

"One of the big problems right now is the people who make these products don't think of intimate partner violence as their use case," she said. "They make items for the home with the assumption that the people you trust are going to be the same people you always trust. And the people who live in the home will always live there."

Galperin said device makers should think about what happens when a couple breaks up, when there's a contentious divorce, or a stalker.

"If you're making a product, there should be one place you can go to where you can see everyone who has access to your account and where they're logged in from," she said.

Product designers, she said, often think that privacy is the user's problem, not theirs. "Privacy should be a priority by default," she said.

Levy concurs. "Device makers should absolutely think about intimate privacy threats in the same way they model other kinds of privacy and security threats," she said.

"The key is to design the technology to empower and inform users about what data is accessible and by whom. A lot of times, devices disclose information to other people in our lives without anybody even intentionally snooping for it! We've designed technology without taking these kinds of threats seriously." ®


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