A Global Survey of Android Dual-Use Applications Used in Intimate Partner Surveillance

Authors: Majed Almansoori (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Andrea Gallardo (Carnegie Mellon University), Julio Poveda (University of Maryland), Adil Ahmed (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Rahul Chatterjee (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Volume: 2022
Issue: 4
Pages: 120–139
DOI: https://doi.org/10.56553/popets-2022-0102


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Abstract: Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a pervasive societal problem that affects millions of people around the world. IPV perpetrators increasingly weaponize digital technologies like mobile applications (“apps”) to spy on, monitor, and harass victims. Surveillance-capable apps can have legitimate use cases, for example, locating children, and are therefore easily available on various mobile app stores like the Google Play Store. Nevertheless, these applications are easily repurposed by abusers to track their victims. The problem of such dual-use apps in IPV is global. However, current understanding of the ecosystem of such apps is limited to English-language apps, potentially limiting its relevance to non-English speaking IPV survivors across the world. In this paper, we study the prevalence of dualuse applications found in 15 languages and 27 countries. We collected 51,868 unique apps in 2020 from the Google Play Store, using queries such as “track wife’s location.” Through a semi-manual analysis of a subset of these apps, we discovered 854 unique dualuse apps, and estimate that among the apps collected from Google Play, 3,988 are dual-use apps. We found notable differences in app search results, suggested queries, and marketed capabilities of dual-use apps across different languages. For instance, we identified that 18% of dual-use apps do not have an English description, and 28% could not be found using English queries. Google Play (cursorily) blocks certain queries referring explicitly to intimate partner surveillance (IPS) to discourage potential abusers, but the blocking efficacy varies across languages. For example, we found that 80% of explicit IPS queries for English are blocked, but none for Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Malay, Thai, and Vietnamese. Thus, abusers fluent in those languages can evade such blocking with no effort.

Keywords: intimate partner violence, dual-use android apps, technology-facilitated abuse

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