Did Google fail to enforce its own ban on stalkerware ads?

Back in 2020, Google took a cold stance on stalkerware, publicly stating that it would ban related ads and apps from Google searches and the Play Store.
14 May 2022

Did Google fail to enforce its own ban on stalkerware ads? (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP FILES / AFP)

  • Google Search displays advertisements for stalkerware services despite the company’s self-imposed ban on such ads
  • 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

In September 2020, search engine behemoth Google announced that it was cracking down on “stalkerware” apps on its Play store. The tech giant then went on to ban all apps that secretly transmit people’s personal information without their knowledge — or at least that’s what Google claimed to the public. Fast forward to today, it appears that stalkerware ads can still commonly be found on Google.

According to a research by mobile security firm Certo Software and confirmed by MIT Technology Review, it appears like stalkerware companies are easily getting around the tech giant’s ad restrictions on spyware, showing up with a simple search for products to keep track of a partners’ phone or to review other’s text messages.

“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,” MIT said.

Although Google still allows advertisements promoting private investigators and child-monitoring products or services, the tech giant said in 2020 that “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. It simply means that apps tracking spouses, partners, or anyone else without their knowledge are prohibited.

When MIT viewed those advertisements, it contained phrases including “app to see spouse’s text messages,” “see who your girlfriend is texting,” and “it’s like having their device.” MIT even noted that “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 added. Those companies also bought ads against terms relating to people spying digitally on their partners. 

Google however claimed that they are still not allowing ads promoting spyware for partner surveillance. “We’ve reviewed the ads in question and are removing those that violate our policy.” Ever since MIT brought the ads to Google’s attention, the company has removed some but not all of them from its search results. 

Overall, on stalkerware, data obtained from Kaspersky Security Network shows that in 2021, about 33,000 unique users of the system were affected by stalkerware — a historic low. To compare, in 2020 nearly 54,000 people were affected by such apps, and in 2019 — more than 67,000. As for the geographical spread, most stalkerware victims among the users of KSN were from Russia, Brazil, and the USA. — similar to in both 2019 and 2020.