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Security & privacy

Beware: Stalkerware apps could be watching your every move

Ever feel like somebody’s watching you? Does someone in your life seem to know just a little too much about where you’ve been and what you’re up to? Believe it or not, it’s possible you may have “stalkerware” installed on your phone.

Stalkerware is a special kind of app that records your activity and reports it to someone else — usually the person who installed it. These programs are often used by jealous partners or abusers, and until recently, they’ve persisted on Google Play and the iOS App Store under the guise of “child safety apps.” Tap or click here to find out more about stalkerware.

In July 2020, Google announced that it would be banning stalkerware apps from advertising because so many concealed their true function. This appeared to be a major step in the right direction, but many of these apps are still somehow appearing in Google’s search results. A closer look at Google’s policy may shed some light on why this is happening.

Stalkerware continues to stalk Google search results

According to TechCrunch, several controversial “stalkerware” apps continue to appear in Google search results and advertisements despite an explicit ban on promoting these programs that took effect on August 11.

Seven of the programs in question, including the well-known FlexiSpy, KidsGuard, mSpy and WebWatcher can still easily be found by searching for monitoring apps on Google. This presents a unique challenge for privacy advocates looking to curb or eliminate the use of these programs.

Google’s own updated ads policy is explicit on the matter, stating that “Spyware and technology used for intimate partner surveillance including but not limited to spyware/malware…” are “examples of products and services that will be prohibited.”

But in spite of this, the apps continue to pop up in searches. While many of these apps are (and have been) blocked by Google, it seems like some of the most popular options continue to persist. How could this be?

Well, based on a closer reading of Google’s policy, it appears that the devil is in the details.

Tap or click here for an app that will read the fine print of user agreements for you.

A blurred line between safety and spying

Google’s policy prohibits the use of “spyware” type apps but makes one notable exception for apps that can monitor online activity or track locations: Child-monitoring apps.

According to Google’s own text, the ban “does not include…products or services designed for parents to track or monitor their underage children.” As long as an app can be used by parents to keep tabs on their kid, it’s fair game to keep appearing in search results and ads.

In other words, this means all an app has to do to stick around and evade the ban is change a bit of text on its website and Google Play description.

For this reason, privacy advocates like antivirus developer Malwarebytes called Google’s new ad policy “incomplete” because “the line between stalkerware-type applications and parental monitoring applications can be blurred.”

And sure enough, several of these apps explicitly mention how they can be used to spy on spouses on their websites. Maybe Google really isn’t looking too far beyond its own walled garden.

Not that it pays much attention there, anyway. Tap or click here to see the latest batch of Google Play malware.

As with so much in the cybersecurity realm, it’s now up to us to protect ourselves from these kinds of apps. Luckily, you can usually catch them red-handed by paying attention to a few key signs on your device. And best of all, if stalkerware is installed on your phone, it can easily be removed if you follow our guide.

Tap or click here to see our complete guide to finding and removing stalkerware from your smartphone.

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