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Adam Molnar

Unmasking the Use and Impacts of Spyware

We often take for granted the presence of smartphones in our daily lives.  However, these items that play such an integral role in how we communicate with friends, family, and work colleagues can be used as a tool of surveillance, negatively influencing our personal security.  When surveillance software is added to a person’s phone it can be used to track their movements, monitor who they have called, and observe who they have emailed.

Dr. Adam Molnar, Department of Sociology and Legal Studies (University of Waterloo), and his colleagues have been examining a particular form of surveillance software: spyware.  Spyware is software that is knowingly or unknowingly downloaded to a person’s phone which sends information, such as an individual’s location, device keystrokes, photos, and other sensitive information to the operator of the spyware. Once only used by governments and law enforcement, spyware has transformed and now “consumer spyware” is sold to individuals to serve a range of purposes.  For example, some spyware allows parents to monitor their children; other spyware enables employers to locate and track employees.  Dr. Molnar and colleagues have recently published articles in Crime Media and Culture and Violence Against Women, as well as reports that explore the multiple dimensions of spyware through social, legal and technical lenses, within the legal environments of Australia (The Consumer Spyware Industry) and Canada (Predator in Your Pocket: A Multidisciplinary Assessment of the Stalkerware Application Industry). Their research draws on social, legal, computational social science, and computer science methods to examine how software with innocuous names such as TeenSafe and Highster Mobile are marketed to consumers – often as ways to improve safety – but can threaten people’s well-being. For example, a good deal of research highlights that the abusive use of spyware enhances the risk of domestic and intimate partner violence. Dr. Molnar’s research demonstrates how consumer spyware functions as a mechanism of social control, despite manufacturer’s claims that the software should not be used as such. Central goals of his research are to identify the threats that spyware poses to society, and to recommend a raft of policy instruments rooted in social, legal/policy regulations, and software design modifications that, when pursued together, mitigate these threats and enhance personal and community security.  

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