Analyzing the Monetization Ecosystem of Stalkerware

In: Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium (2022)

Type: Conference
Venue: PETS
Acceptance Rate

Stalkerware is a form of malware that allows for the abusive monitoring of intimate partners. Primarily deployed on information-rich mobile platforms, these malicious applications allow for collecting information about a victim’s actions and behaviors, including location data, call audio, text messages, photos, and other personal details. While stalkerware has received increased attention from the security community, the ways in which stalkerware authors monetize their efforts have not been explored in depth. This paper represents the first large-scale technical analysis of monetization within the stalkerware ecosystem. We analyze the code base of 6,432 applications collected by the Coalition Against Stalkerware to determine their monetization strategies.
We find that while far fewer stalkerware apps use ad libraries than normal apps, 99% of those that do use Google AdMob. We also find that payment services range from traditional in-app billing to cryptocurrency. Finally, we demonstrate that Google’s recent change to their Terms of Service (ToS) did not eliminate these applications, but instead caused a shift to other payment processors, while the apps can still be found on the Play Store; we verify through emulation that these apps often operate in blatant contravention of the ToS. Through this analysis, we find that the heterogeneity of markets and payment processors means that while point solutions can have impact on monetization, a multi-pronged solution involving multiple stakeholders is necessary to mitigate the financial incentive for developing stalkerware.