Google corrects unfortunate ‘Stalkerware’ typo allowing partner-tracking apps


Google is correcting a “typo” in its Play Store “stalkerware” policy that currently suggests that apps can be used to track spouses. Stalkerware and other tracking software is dangerous, campaigners say, because it can facilitate domestic abuse and harassment of partners. As it’s written, the policy also mistakenly says parents cannot track their children.

The updated developer policy, which comes into effect on October 1st, now explicitly says that Play Store apps which allow parents to track their children are acceptable, but that they cannot be used to track adults (like a spouse) without their knowledge or permission.

Here’s the relevant section from the current developer policy which is due to be corrected (emphasis added):

Legitimate forms of these apps cannot be used by parents to track their children. However, these apps can 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.

Here’s that same section in the new policy, which comes into effect on October 1st (again, emphasis added). Google has changed the wording from “legitimate” to “acceptable,” but more importantly it’s switched around which apps are allowed and which are forbidden.

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.

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

Google’s rule clarification comes amidst a wider campaign to crack down on stalkerware. These apps that are frequently marketed as a way for jealous or suspicious partners to keep tabs on another, and are designed to trick users into believing they’re not being monitored, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The Coalition Against Stalkerware, which the EFF helped found last year, says that surveillance like this can facilitate “gender-based and domestic violence, harassment and sexual abuse.”

Back in July, Google announced a ban on advertising spyware or surveillance technology with a new ads policy which came into force on August 11th, although a TechCrunch report subsequently found ads for these apps after the ban came into effect.

Alongside yesterday’s typo correction, Google also updated its policies around misrepresentation and gambling apps. It has clarified that “coordinated activity that misrepresents or conceals the origin of an app or content” is a violation of its policies, and that a government-published gambling app is now allowed in Brazil. These policies will come into effect on October 21st.



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