Google is failing to enforce its own ban on ads for stalkerware

Google Search displays advertisements for stalkerware services that boast real-time monitoring of romantic partners and spouses, despite the company’s self-imposed ban on such ads. 

According to research by mobile security firm Certo Software and confirmed by MIT Technology Review, Google Search queries related to tracking partners such as a wife or girlfriend commonly return ads for software and services that explicitly offer to spy on other individuals.

Stalkerware, also referred to as spyware, is software designed to secretly monitor another person, tracking their location, phone calls, private messages, web searches, and keystrokes. Such apps, some of which are free but most of which are paid-for, typically run undetected in the background on a phone, or masquerade as harmless-seeming calculators, calendars, or system maintenance apps. 

Google banned ads promoting stalkerware in August 2020. “The updated policy will prohibit the promotion of products or services that are marketed or targeted with the express purpose of tracking or monitoring another person or their activities without their authorization,” it reads. Software used to monitor intimate partners falls within this category, although Google still allows advertisements promoting private investigators and child-monitoring products or services. 

The companies behind stalkerware services buy ads on Google against search results such as “spy app cheater,” “read wife’s texts app” and “read girlfriend’s texts app.”  

The advertisements viewed by MIT Technology Review contain phrases including “app to see spouse’s text messages,” “see who your girlfriend is texting,” and “it’s like having their device.” 

On their websites, stalkerware companies often present themselves as selling legal child monitoring software for concerned parents. However, Certo used a search analytics tool called Spyfu to search for the ads these companies buy on Google. It found that they bought ads against terms relating to people spying digitally on their partners. MIT Technology Review has chosen not to name these companies to avoid giving them publicity. 

A spokesperson for Google said: “We do not allow ads promoting spyware for partner surveillance. We’ve reviewed the ads in question and are removing those that violate our policy.” Since MIT Technology Review brought the ads to Google’s attention, the company has removed some but not all of them from its search results. For example, searches for “read wife’s texts app” are still returning ads for stalkerware, MIT Technology Review has found.

In a cruel irony, Google’s current policies actually penalize anti-spyware companies. Phrases such as “Stop stalkerware, download our app” get caught by bans on words like “stalkerware.”

The things companies like Google do to screen the ads they run on their networks tend to be superficial, says Jan Penfrat, senior policy advisor at European Digital Rights. “They’re often automated by algorithms, and they don’t work very well,” he says of these screening systems. “They make lots and lots of mistakes, and research has shown over and over again that it’s pretty easy to circumvent them.”

While it’s against the law in the US to install stalkerware on an adult’s phone without consent, marketing such apps is legal. Although many companies display disclaimers on their websites stating that their software is intended for legal purposes only, there have been a handful of convictions for installing spyware on unknowing adults’ devices. 

Last September, in the first order of its kind, the Federal Trade Commission banned a company called Support King, which operated under the name SpyFone, from the surveillance business for illegally harvesting and sharing people’s private information and failing to implement basic security measures. The FTC said it will be “aggressive about seeking surveillance bans when companies and their executives egregiously invade our privacy.”

While many stalkerware apps are sold as parental monitoring tools for keeping an eye on children, they provide the same capabilities as services that are more blatant about being designed to spy on spouses, says David Ruiz, senior privacy advocate at the security group Malwarebytes. “There’s a whole family of applications out there that straight up says they will, quote unquote, solve your problem of a cheating spouse. Which is not just ludicrous—it’s dangerous.” 

Technology-facilitated abuse is a rapidly growing problem. Around 1.5 million Americans are stalked through some form of technology every year, according to the Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource Center, while the UK domestic violence charity Refuge reported a 97% increase in the number of abuse cases requiring specialist tech support between April 2020 and May 2021.

The charity’s tech abuse team said it works with “countless” survivors whose abusers installed stalkerware on their phones in a bid to intimidate, harass, and manipulate them.

“To hear that these apps are being marketed directly to perpetrators is extremely concerning,” says Emma Pickering, tech abuse lead at Refuge. “Tech companies must act swiftly to remove ads which enable perpetrators to access tools to read their partners’ messages or track locations without their knowledge or consent. 

“We must recognize that cyberstalking is dangerous and threatening behavior in the same way stalking on the street is.”

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