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Google targets stalkerware in updated ad policy

App-makers who sell these intrusive spy apps are on notice not to advertise with Google.

It might get harder to advertise apps known as spyware or stalkerware on Google's platform starting in August.
Angela Lang/CNET

Google will name stalkerware apps on its list of services banned from advertising on its platform, starting in August, the company said in an update this month. The move is designed to make it even harder to reach potential customers for the apps, which are also banned from Google's and Apple's stores. 

Stalkerware or spyware apps are disturbingly common. Tens of thousands of the services are available by some estimates, and they let someone who has access to your phone or cloud passwords intercept your texts, call logs and location while having access to your microphone and camera. They're associated with domestic violence, and often are used for illegal activity. 

Google's ad policies are one of many ways the tech sector and advocates have tried to limit the app-makers' reach. Google and Apple have also removed many of the apps from their platforms. Additionally, a group of advocates, antivirus companies and legal experts, have formed the Coalition Against Stalkerware. Antivirus firms have researched the best ways to identify the apps and warn users when stalkerware might be on their phones. (CNET wrote a series of stories on these apps and their dangers earlier this year. They're listed in the curated links box below.)

The apps have thrived in to a legal gray area. The law lets app makers advertise the products as family safety apps, meant to keep track of kids' phone use and locations. But because they often run completely in the background, with no icon or notifications to let the user know they're there, the apps are useful for people who want to spy on partners or exes without their consent.

In a Harris poll conducted with NortonLifeLock, 1 in 10 people in the US said they've used the apps to track an ex or partner.

Now playing: Watch this: How to find and delete stalkerware

Google's new policy does allow app makers to advertise services "designed for parents to track or monitor their underage children." This could prompt apps with secret spy abilities to use deceptive, family-friendly messaging when they try to advertise with Google. Under the hood, they may still act like stalkerware apps, as security writer Graham Cluley pointed out in a blog post Friday. 

According to Google, the company takes enforcement action against companies that hide the true purpose of their apps with deceptive practices. The update will add spyware to the list of specific examples of services that can't advertise with Google because they "enable a user to gain unauthorized access (or make unauthorized changes) to systems, devices, or property." Other services currently listed by Google include "hacking services, stealing cable, radar jammers, changing traffic signals, phone or wire-tapping."

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said the company makes frequent updates to its ad policies to make sure users are protected.

"We routinely updated our language with examples to help clarify what we consider policy violating," the spokesperson said. "Spyware technology for partner surveillance was always in scope of our policies against dishonest behavior."