Several companies offering phone-spying apps — known as “stalkerware” — are still advertising in Google search results, despite the search giant’s ban that took effect today, TechCrunch has found.
These controversial apps are often pitched to help parents snoop on their child’s calls, messages, apps and other private data under the guise of helping to protect against online predators.
But some repurpose these apps to spy on their spouses — often without their permission.
It’s a problem that the wider tech industry has worked to tackle. Security firms and antivirus makers are working to combat the rise of stalkerware, and federal authorities have taken action when app makers have violated the law.
One of the biggest actions to date came last month when Google announced an updated ads policy, effectively banning companies from advertising phone-snooping apps “with the express purpose of tracking or monitoring another person or their activities without their authorization.”
Google gave these companies until August 11 to remove these ads.
But TechCrunch found seven companies known to provide stalkerware — including FlexiSpy, mSpy, WebWatcher and KidsGuard — were still advertising in Google search results after the ban took effect.
Google did not say explicitly say if the stalkerware apps violated its policy, but told TechCrunch that it removed ads for WebWatcher. Despite the deadline, Google said that enforcement is not always immediate.
“We recently updated our policies to prohibit ads promoting spyware for partner surveillance while still allowing ads for technology that helps parents monitor their underage children,” said a Google spokesperson. “To prevent deceitful actors who try to disguise the product’s intent and evade our enforcement, we look at several signals like the ad text, creative and landing page, among others, for policy compliance. When we find that an ad or advertiser is violating our policies, we take immediate action.”
The policy is evidently far from perfect. Google faced immediate criticism for carving out exceptions to its new policy for “products or services designed for parents to track or monitor their underage children.”
Malwarebytes, one of several antivirus makers that pledged to help fight stalkerware, called the policy “incomplete,” in large part because the “the line between stalkerware-type applications and parental monitoring applications can be blurred.”
In this case, several of the stalkerware apps explicitly state how their apps could be used to spy on spouses.
For instance, mSpy’s website said the app can be used to spy on “your children, wife, or colleagues.” KidsGuard, which had a massive security lapse last year that exposed thousands of surveilled users, explicitly says on its homepage that its app can “catch a cheating spouse.” Two other app makers, Spyic and PhoneSpector, still have dozens of blog posts on their website explicitly referencing spying on spouses.
Last year the Electronic Frontier Foundation founded the Coalition Against Stalkerware, a group of academics, companies and nonprofits to help detect, combat and raise awareness of stalkerware.