Google stalkerware policy requires notifications on monitoring apps

Google announced a new policy Wednesday to limit stalkerware apps on the Play store.

Angela Lang/CNET

Google announced a new policy Wednesday that will limit developers’ ability to put stalkerware apps on the Play store. The apps are typically used by someone who wants to monitor another person’s phone use, communications and web browsing history. The new policy forbids the apps if they don’t do enough to let phone users know they’ve been installed.

Many apps present themselves as child-monitoring apps, and Google’s new policy will allow the apps for this purpose. But the apps must meet several criteria to be allowed, including frequent notifications to the phone user when the app sends off data, as well as a visible icon that correctly identifies the app as a monitoring service.

“These apps cannot be used to track a person (a spouse, for example) without their knowledge or permission unless a persistent notification is displayed while the data is being transmitted,” the policy, which will go into effect Oct. 1, says.

Google didn’t allow stalkerware apps on the Play store before now, and has removed many apps for allowing customers to secretly track a users’ phone behavior. However, a previous policy update that took effect Aug. 12 appears to accidentally state that users are forbidden to use the apps to track children, but are allowed to use them to track adults without their consent or knowledge. That’s the opposite of the policy announced Wednesday.

The apps, which are associated with domestic violence and stalking, exist in a legal gray area. Software makers can sell them as long as they don’t market them as a tool for spying on adults. In a Harris poll commissioned by NortonLifeLock, one in ten US respondents said they’d used stalkerware on a partner or ex’s device.

An FTC decision in 2019 required app makers to include a visible icon to let them users know the apps are installed on their phones, but made an exception for customers who are parents of minor children. Domestic violence advocates and malware experts have also called for any monitoring app to include persistent notifications and a visible icon.

Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the previous policy’s wording. The company has previously cracked down on ads on its platforms for the software, which can be purchased outside of the Play store for Android phones.