Google Search Ads Promote Stalkerware, Despite Ban

A person is holding a phone with a call from someone saying "blocked."

Photo: R.Classen (Shutterstock)

If you’re worried about someone trying to track you through your phone, be aware that they might get some help from Google’s advertising policies.

As first reported by MIT Technology Review, stalkerware companies easily circumvent the tech giant’s ad restrictions on spyware, showing up with a simple product search to track a partner’s phone or check other people’s text messages.

from google advertising policies for Harassing Apps – last updated August 2022 – makes it clear that spyware and other surveillance technologies are explicitly prohibited from advertising in search results. The policy does not apply to apps designed to help parents track children or employers track their employees’ company devices.

But Gizmodo confirmed that a simple search for phrases such as “app to see spouse’s texts” or “see who your girlfriend is texting to” brings up several advertisements for products that explicitly allow remote access. to SMS and SMS. Advertisements for some products like mSpy clearly state that they are useful for monitoring other people’s phones, even though their websites claim that they are intended for use by parents to track their children.

A screenshot of a Google search app to see spouse's text messages showing several ads about monitoring others' texts.

Who’s watching who, huh?
Screenshot: Gizmodo

Representatives for mSpy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their advertising policies.

Although the most popular search engine advertising policies have been in place for years, the problem is not new. Certo Software, a mobile security company, wrote in a blog post last year about several companies blatantly selling partner tracking software in search ads. The mSpy company also offered problematic advertisements in this report.

Google claims it works to identify products that disguise their original intent, but Jan Penfrat, the senior policy adviser at European Digital Rights, told MIT Tech Review that the tech giant’s ad filtering is done through outdated algorithms. where “research has shown time and time again that it’s quite easy to circumvent them.

Google told MIT that it removed the offensive ads after submitting them to the company for review, but a simple search shows that there are still many results that directly advertise as stalkerware that appear in top of the results.

And those who say they are supposed to be watched by parents also offer tips and tools to break into any phone. The tips used to hack a child’s phone can easily be applied to hacking a partner’s phone or potentially a stranger’s phone. Xnspy tracking app includes an annoyance detailed guide for hacking into someone else’s phone, giving step by step instructions on how to steal someone else’s phone while they are sleeping or accessing remotely the settings menu on a separate medium device.

Bullying, with and without technology, remains a huge problem across the world, but the Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource Center reported that 13.5 million people are stalked every year in the United States alone, and that one in three women has been stalked in her lifetime. More than twice as many victims are tracked with technology than without, according to the US Department of Justice.

In response to a request for comment, a Google spokesperson said, “We don’t allow ads promoting spyware for partner monitoring. We’ve reviewed the ads in question and are removing any that violate our policies. »

However, it’s not just stalkerware that easily circumvents Google’s policies. Earlier this week, Gizmodo broke the story that Google planned to change its advertising restrictions to allow FDA-approved stem cell products to advertise in search results. This is despite the fact that advertisements for gene therapy and other ladle treatments appeared as ads directly at the top of search results, despite current rules prohibiting stem cell advertising.

And despite the United States Federal Trade Commission put some pressure on the stalkerware industry, the fact that most of these companies continue to openly advertise their products means that it’s the rest of the tech industry that needs to step up its influence. Google obviously needs to do more.

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