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July 14, 2020

Google’s stalkerware ban is a positive step

By GlobalData Technology

Google’s move to ban advertising for apps that can be used to track people without their knowledge is a positive move. Unfortunately, there are ways around the ban and snoopers will still find it easy to find and purchase surveillance software, commonly called stalkerware.

Starting 11 August, Google will prohibit ads for products and services that track or monitor another person or their activities without their authorization. This new Google Ads policy update regarding ‘Enabling Dishonest Behavior’ will apply globally, and violators will receive a warning of at least seven days before any account suspension.

Google Play and the Apple App Store already aim to keep stalkerware out of their official app sites and have excised many from their platforms. But such surveillance software remains widely available via the web, which is why Google aims to shut down advertising for such apps on its platform.

Why stalkerware is a problem

Unlike legitimate tracking apps designed and deployed for family protection, stalkerware operates covertly, without letting the victim know they are being monitored.

Though it is thought to most commonly be used to invade the privacy of current or former intimate partners, stalkerware can be employed against acquaintances, employees and even total strangers.

Once installed on a victim’s phone or tablet, stalkerware enables that person’s messages, call logs and physical location as determined by GPS to be remotely revealed to the perpetrator aiming to invade their privacy. Some apps even provide access to the device’s microphone and camera.

Stalkerware is easily obtainable from any number of sources because marketing or selling the software is not illegal. However, users may employ stalkerware in some manner that violates state or federal laws, usually regarding privacy.

The challenge to provide solutions

Despite its laudable effort to stem stalkerware marketing, gaps in Google’s revised policy highlight the challenges inherent in battling these apps. The company notes that its ad ban does not apply to private investigation services or to products and services designed for parents to track and monitor their children’s activities. Both loopholes potentially endanger stalkers’ victims.

Stalkers are known to engage private investigators to locate their targets and scope out their daily routines. Additionally, there are already examples of known stalkerware being officially promoted as a parental control or family safety tool when it is clear that is actually not what the app is designed for.

On the flip side, seemingly innocuous devices and apps might be surreptitiously promoted for illicit surveillance. Even Google, in describing its new ad ban, notes that the policy applies to devices such as nanny cams, generally associated with monitoring underage children, if they are “marketed with the express purpose of spying.”

Google ban is seen as a positive step

Google’s planned ban on ads for surveillance products and services is a step in the right direction. There is growing awareness among tech leaders regarding the dangers of stalkerware.

The Coalition Against Stalkerware was convened in November 2019 by a group of ten security companies, non-profit organizations, and academic researchers and has already more than doubled in membership. Google is not a member, but big cybersecurity names such as Kaspersky and NortonLifeLock are.

Unfortunately, it is a certainty that bad actors will continue to develop, market and sell stalkerware because there is considerable customer demand for it.