Google has removed seven "stalker apps" from its Play Store after security researchers at Avast warned that the apps were being used by Android users to stalk employees, romantic partners, or kids.
The seven stalker apps were installed on Android devices over 130,000 times and two of these apps, named Spy Tracker and SMS Tracker, were installed on Android devices at least 50,000 times each.
While four of these apps were reported to Google by Avast researchers on Tuesday, the latter found three more apps that offered similar capabilities on Wednesday. According to the researchers, all seven apps were likely developed by a Russian developer to allow people to stalk employees, romantic partners, or kids.
Aside from the two apps named above, other stalker apps uploaded to the Google Play Store by the developer were Spy Kids Tracker, Mobile Tracking, Employee Work Spy, Phone Cell Tracker, and Track Employees Check Work Phone Online Spy Free. All seven apps offered users the ability to track locations of a device as well as the ability to monitor contacts, SMS, and call history.
According to the researchers, a person who intends to stalk other Android device users needs to have physical access to the target device in order to download a "stalker app" on the device. Once the app is installed, the person is asked to provide their email address and password, following which the surveillance begins.
Stalker apps proudly announced their surveillance capabilities
Like many other surveillance apps, the seven apps discovered by Avast researchers did not display any app icon so targeted Android users were not able to detect the presence of any unwanted apps in their devices.
On the other hand, the developer was honest about the apps' abilities and did not masquerade the stalker apps as anything but. For example, the Spy Tracker app came with the following description:
"Find out more about your child’s life, interests, friends and plans. Parents are responsible for every step that their kids make. So this app is created to monitor them and protect them from dangers that can be revealed via cell phone. It is better to talk to children, but if you are not a good listener…"
Similarly, the SMS Tracker app, that allowed users to track online activities of their employees, came with the following description:
"Our app will help you monitor work time of your employees to save time and save money. Notify the users of work phones that you are going to install the app. It will teach your employees to use their time at work wisely, to reduce time spent on messengers and arrive to work in time."
"These apps are highly unethical and problematic for people’s privacy and shouldn’t be on the Google Play Store. They promote criminal behavior, and can be abused by employers, stalkers or abusive partners to spy on their victims," said Nikolaos Chrysaidos, Avast’s head of mobile threat intelligence and security.
Surveillance apps widely used for monitoring citizens & tourists
Earlier this month, a joint investigation conducted by Motherboard, The Guardian, The New York Times, Süddeutsche Zeitung and German public broadcaster NDR revealed how Chinese border guards posted at Irkeshtam port at the border between Kyrgyzstan and China have been forcibly side-loading a surveillance app on devices owned by tourists visiting the restive Xinjiang region.
After analysing the surveillance app, Motherboard found that the app "uploads the device's text messages, calendar entries, phone logs and contacts to a server" and scans devices for over 73,000 files that include PDFs related to the Dalai Lama, passages from the Quran, literature related to the Islamic State, and music from Unholy Grave, a Japanese music group that recently released a song titled "Taiwan: Another China."
It added that Chinese border guards side-loaded the spyware onto tourists' devices rather than downloading it from the Google Play Store. Following the investigation, popular antivirus apps and security apps offered by cyber security firms such as Check Point, Malwarebytes, and Symantec started flagging the surveillance app as malware, thereby allowing those visiting Xinjiang in the future to prevent Chinese border guards from installing spyware on their devices.
ALSO READ: Google kicks out malware family that stole data from Facebook & WhatsApp