Google fixes unfortunate ‘Stalkerware’ typo allowing partner tracking apps

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Google is correcting a “typo” in its Play Store “stalkerware” policy that currently suggests apps can be used to track spouses. Stalkerware and other tracking software are dangerous, say activists, because they can facilitate domestic violence and partner harassment. As written, the policy also incorrectly says that parents cannot follow their children.

The updated developer policy, which takes effect on October 1, now explicitly states that Play Store apps that allow parents to track their children are acceptable, but cannot be used to track adults (like spouse) without their knowledge or authorization.

Here is the relevant section of the current developer policy that needs to be corrected (emphasis added):

Legitimate forms of these applications can not be used by parents to track their children. However, these applications can be used to track a person (a spouse, for example) without their knowledge or permission, unless a persistent notification is displayed during data transmission.

Here’s the same section in the new policy, which goes into effect Oct. 1 (again, emphasis). Google changed the wording from “legitimate” to “acceptable”, but more importantly, it changes which apps are allowed and which are prohibited.

Acceptable forms of these applications can be used by parents to track their children. However, these applications can not be used to track a person (a spouse, for example) without their knowledge or authorization, unless a persistent notification is displayed during data transmission.

Apart from a few other minor wording changes, the rest of Stalkerware’s policy appears to be more or less unchanged since August. Google’s rules state that apps cannot mislead users about their tracking functionality. Apps must “present users with a permanent notification and a unique icon that clearly identifies the app” and they are not allowed to hide tracking behavior. They should also be explicitly designed and marketed as parental monitoring or business management apps, rather than a “spy or covert surveillance solution”. Google confirmed to The edge that this persistent tracking notification should be displayed, even when an app is designed to allow parents to track their children.

Google’s rule clarification is part of a larger campaign to crack down on stalkerware. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), these apps are often marketed as a way for jealous or suspicious partners to keep tabs on one another, and are designed to trick users into believing that they are not being watched. The Coalition Against Stalkerware, which the EFF helped found last year, says surveillance like this can facilitate “gender and domestic violence, harassment and sexual abuse.”

In July, Google announced a ban on advertising for spyware or surveillance technologies with a new advertising policy that went into effect on August 11, although a TechCrunch report then found advertisements for these apps after the ban went into effect.

Along with the correction of typos yesterday, Google also updated its policies regarding misrepresentation and gaming applications. It clarified that “coordinated activity that distorts or disguises the origin of an application or application. ‘content’ is a violation of its policies, and a government-released gaming application is now permitted in Brazil. These policies will take effect on October 21.

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