Google has updated its Play Store rules to impose a "formal" ban on stalkerware apps.

Stalkerware is a code that transmits personal information off the device without adequate notice or consent and doesn't display a persistent notification that this is happening. These apps typically transmit data to a party other than the PHA provider. According to Google, acceptable forms of these apps can be used by parents to track their children, however, "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."

Now, with Google's ban, only policy compliant apps exclusively designed and marketed for parental (including family) monitoring or enterprise management may distribute on the Play Store with tracking and reporting features, provided they fully comply with the following requirements:

  • Apps must not present themselves as a spying or secret surveillance solution.
  • Apps must not hide or cloak tracking behavior or attempt to mislead users about such functionality.
  • Apps must present users with a persistent notification and unique icon that clearly identifies the app.
  • Apps and app listings on Google Play must not provide any means to activate or access functionality that violate these terms, such as linking to a non-compliant APK hosted outside Google Play.
  • You are solely responsible for determining the legality of your app in its targeted locale. Apps determined to be unlawful in locations where they are published will be removed.

Christoph Hebeisen, Director, Security Intelligence Research at Lookout, a San Francisco, Calif.-based provider of mobile phishing solutions, says, “The use of mobile technology for surveillance in abusive relationships is a very disturbing trend. Google's move to limit such apps on Play is a step in the right direction."

For instance, at Lookout, adds Hebeisen, users are alerted about surveillanceware independent of the stated purpose of the app i.e. the same rules apply to child tracking and device theft protection apps. "We consider such apps malicious if the app doesn't show a persistent notification, hides it's icon, masquerades as something other than its true functionality or hides a part of its functionality. We apply this logic no matter if the app has been loaded from an official app store or sideloaded onto the device," says Hebeisen.