On the popular Netflix series YouA stalker accesses his girlfriend’s texts by stealing her cell phone. (Unfortunately for viewers, she can’t disconnect the missing device from her iCloud account before replacing it.) Later, he installs spyware on his neighbor’s phone to read it her SMS and track their whereabouts. Though it would be nice to pretend that there were no such people in real life, stalkerware is a serious problem. In fact, a woman whose partner had Stalkerware installed on her phone told a UK publication that You was “scary exactly.”
Now Google is making it difficult for people to spy on their significant other and exes. Effective August 11, the search giant will ban ads on most stalkerware apps.
Once installed, users can use Stalkerware to spy on text messages, call logs, photos and videos, location data, and typing on their phone (yes, including important passwords). While some apps require the stalker to have physical access to their destination’s phone, this isn’t always the case. Some have a user send a link to their destination that is disguised as harmless. After clicking the link, Stalkerware downloads to the device.
Many stalkerware apps are already banned in the App Store and Play Store, making them more difficult to find. This is where the Google advertising ban comes into play: Companies that advertise stalkerware apps can no longer forward users to third-party sources where their services are available.
A February survey by software company NortonLifeLock found that one in ten Americans used stalkerware to keep an eye on their significant other or ex. The results can be frightening and life-threatening. In 2019, the BBC described how a woman’s husband used surveillance software to track her every move. In the same year, someone told MIT Technology Review that using a stalkerware app, her friend “knew at all times where I was, who I was talking to via email, text messaging, and social media – all of it. He could see everything. I had no privacy. “
Stalkerware is reported to have risen sharply during the COVID-19 lockout. Internet security company Avast said it saw a 51 percent increase in stalkerware usage between March and June. California-based Malwarebytes has reported a 190 percent increase in stalkerware detection on customers’ devices, according to CyberScoop. Avira’s director of protection laboratories and quality assurance, Alex Vukcevic, told CyberScoop: “When many countries started announcing the closures, we see a parallel between this and the [stalkerware] Installation rates. ”
Unfortunately, Google’s updated advertising policy contains a gap. It prohibits “advertising for products or services that are marketed or targeted for the specific purpose of tracking or monitoring another person or their activities without their permission”. However, private investigation and child monitoring apps that can also be used for stalking are not included. A 2018 study warns of dual-use apps that are advertised for non-harmful services, but can easily be reused by stalkers. A BBC article in October 2019 warned that many stalkerware companies advertise their products as “parental controls” or “employee monitoring”.
Ars Technica points out that “the popularity of dual-use apps described in the study also makes toothless Google’s ban on stalkerware ads, as many tracking apps already claim to have legitimate uses for parents or investigators.”
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America and Arizona State University that deals with new technologies, public order and society.