Google Removes Several “Stalkerware” Ads

Close up of Google App Icon on a red background on a smartphone

Google has removed several ads that promote spyware apps used by consumers to snoop on their partners’ smartphones. This kind of spyware is commonly referred to as “stalkerware” or “spouseware,” and its use has risen in recent years.

According to a Google spokesperson, the company does not “allow ads promoting spyware for partner surveillance.”

The spokesperson added that Google immediately removes such ads and continues to “track emerging behaviors to prevent bad actors from trying to evade our detection systems.”

Despite this, several groups have raised concerns about Google’s ability to effectively pull stalkerware ads.

Stalkerware and Its Worrying Impact

These apps are usually marketed to parents as a tool to protect their children from harmful content and predators. However, they are often misused by abusers who use the software to spy on their partners. Usually, this type of spyware is installed in secret, without the device owner’s knowledge or consent.

Groups that advocate against its use claim the technology raises serious concerns of partner surveillance, harassment, and domestic violence. These concerns have led to an industry-wide call-to-action to stop the spread of stalkerware.

In August 2020, Google banned ads for apps that provide this type of tracking or monitoring service. However, concerns remain about its effectiveness in stopping stalkerware apps.

Stalkerware Apps Evading Google’s Ad Ban?

Google’s policy against enabling dishonest behavior prohibits ads from promoting “intimate partner surveillance.” However, this policy does not prohibit the following types of services:

  • private investigation services
  • services that help parents track or monitor their underage children

Many have expressed concerns regarding the enforcement of this policy. Last year, Malwarebytes said the policy was incomplete, as these apps can get away under the guise of being parental monitoring apps.

This has proven to be the case for many stalkerware apps. Spyware apps such as mSpy, ClevGuard, and Phonespector have successfully managed to avoid Google’s ad ban, despite sometimes overtly advertising their partner surveillance services.

Google has not provided specific details on how it enforces its ad policy. The spokesperson did say that the company studies certain factors such as:

  • the text and images of the ad
  • the manner in which the ad is promoted
  • the landing pages of the ads

In July, Google introduced a new system to punish advertisers who violate its ads policy. The company said it will issue a three-month suspension to repeat violators. This includes ads that go against Google’s enabling dishonest behavior policy.

Technology policy researcher
Prateek is a technology policy researcher with a background in law. His areas of interest include data protection, privacy, digital currencies, and digital literacy. Outside of his research interests, Prateek is an avid reader and is engaged in projects on sustainable farming practices in India.