We’ve all gotten into the habit of installing apps on our phones (a staggering 178.1 billion apps were downloaded worldwide in 2017 alone), but how deeply do you research them first?
If the answer is ‘not at all’, you could be exposing your device to viruses, malware — or even surveillance software designed to track your activities against your will.
While many tracking apps are legitimate and incredibly helpful, empowering parents and schools to monitor their children’s movements when out of sight, some aren’t.
Google has actually removed multiple apps from the Play Store recently for violating its terms of service. Which apps were these and what dangers did they pose?
Tracking Apps: Playing by the Rules
Google is very clear on the type of tracking apps permitted on the Play Store. These must comply with Google’s rules (obviously) and be aimed at parents or enterprises — anything else is viewed as questionable.
The apps Google removed were deemed ‘stalkerware’ by Avast (which brought these suspicious apps’ to Google’s attention, triggering their removal). Sounds terrifying? It is: these apps allow third parties to access key data on your device, as well as its location and other sensitive details.
While such apps may appear to be legitimate solutions for tracking workers or relatives, their performance capabilities actually allow unethical users to monitor virtually anyone they like. And that includes people who may not agree to such — or even be aware.
The technology could track their movements as they go about their day oblivious to the other party monitoring them.
The term ‘stalkerware’ may seem extreme, but it’s shockingly accurate. While countless people could be trusted to leverage apps in an honest, fair way, others couldn’t. Something Google clearly knows all too well.
To comply with the Play Store terms of service, tracking apps must explicitly alert users that they’re active and be clear about their intended purpose. In other words: developers should respect their target audience’s rights to privacy and be 100 percent transparent.
The Apps Banned from Google’s Play Store
So, which apps did Google remove from the Play Store?
- Mobile Tracking
- Phone Cell Tracker
- SMS Tracker
- Spy Kids Tracker
- Track Employees Check Work Phone Online Spy Free (not the catchiest name)
- Employee Work Spy
- Spy Tracker
- Family Employee Monitor
In some cases, the clunky titles alone suggest users should be wary. Others, though, sound more professional and reliable.
Avast initially identified seven apps that caused them concerns over users’ privacy, but went on to add an eighth to its list shortly after. All of the apps were installed 140,000 times (combined), and anyone who still has one or more of them on their phone is advised to delete them as soon as possible.
If you’re worried software on your device could still track you without your consent, performing a factory reset should take care of the problem (just be sure to back up all of your essential data and media beforehand).
The Importance of Ethical Apps
Avast issued a statement to share its view on these apps, claiming they “are highly unethical and problematic for people’s privacy [...] they promote criminal behavior and can be abused by employers, stalkers or abusive partners to spy on their victims.”
Such technology certainly may open the door for a certain type of user to track those they shouldn’t, but it’s good to see Google take such decisive action. However, it does raise questions about the level of awareness Google has regarding the apps within its own store if another company — albeit one of the world’s biggest names in online security — has to point them in the right direction.
Considering many people will simply download an app without checking others’ reviews or researching its functions first, Google has a responsibility to minimize the presence of potentially-dangerous apps in its store.
Yet tracking apps utilizing GPS and location-sharing technology do have a practical purpose in today’s world. The actions of a few questionable developers shouldn’t overshadow the positive potential such software offers.
Using Tracking Apps for Positive Reasons
Tracking apps, such as those designed for employee GPS monitoring or supervising children’s activities, can help businesses, families and organizations:
- protect vulnerable young people in unfamiliar environments
- encourage children’s independence without full isolation from parents
- allow companies to follow employees’ movements when making deliveries
- identify which employees are pulling their weight and which are slacking off
- ensure fuel expenses remain fair and honest
- maximize staff efficiency and eliminate disruptive processes
- save money spent on inefficient routes when making deliveries
- prevent employees breaching policies or entering unsafe areas
For example, let’s say a haulage firm has a fleet of trucks traveling up and down the country. They have dozens of drivers working day and night to deliver goods to clients on time, but continually encounter traffic jams and delays.
That has an ongoing impact on customer satisfaction, the firm’s reputation and — ultimately — retention rates.
The business could use employee GPS monitoring systems to follow their staff’s movements, help them avoid traffic hotspots, guide them to unfamiliar destinations and increase efficiency on a daily basis.
Likewise, a parent can use a tracking app to monitor their child’s location when they start exploring their local area with friends for the first time. This provides the peace of mind they need while still allowing the child to grow and gain valuable experience of being on their own.
Turtler, for example, is an enterprise GPS tracking app for businesses committed to monitoring employees with the utmost privacy and respect for their rights. This is explicit about what it is, how it works and what it allows users to do — fully transparent in all respects.
This situation emphasises just how important it is for Google, and other companies with app stores, to remain vigilant. Apps which breach their terms of service and put users at risk must be identified as soon as possible, to minimize any potential harm that may result from unethical usage.
The onus is also on developers and businesses creating apps to utilize the technology properly, and to prevent flaws that may permit users to behave in a questionable way. Consumers, too, must be willing to raise the alarm and help app stores stay safe.