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Google pulls stalking apps from the Play Store

They're conspicuously designed to enable abuse.
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bee32 via Getty Images

It's one thing to voluntarily share your phone activities with friends and family, but some app developers have been encouraging far more sinister uses. Google has pulled multiple people-tracking Android apps from the Play Store after Avast discovered that they're largely meant to enable stalking. Once the would-be spy has physical access to the target's phone, they install a tracking app that collects sensitive details like location, text messages and call history. They even help snoops hide evidence of the apps -- you won't find icons or other telltale clues. After that, the stalker can watch their victim through a desktop.

The apps were frequently pitched as employee and parental monitoring tools, but CNET found that some people weren't using the app that way. Reviews for Spy Tracker, for instance, included numerous people using the app to stalk romantic partners. The clients were mildly popular -- they had 130,000 total downloads.

When asked for comment, Google confirmed to Engadget that it pulled the apps. The company already has policies forbidding these apps and has taken some steps to fight partner abuse, such as donating resources to anti-domestic violence charities like Refuge and working with privacy and security researchers. It also published a study in 2017 to guide privacy and security practices when dealing with abusers.

The app report is a not-so-subtle plug for Avast's stalking app detection tools, but it also illustrates the challenges Google faces in keeping these kinds of apps out of its catalog. These apps can clear the Play Store's automated app screening even though they're designed with malicious intent, and they might not be reported until after they've had an opportunity to do some damage.

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