New technology is cropping up every day. We’re hooked on our smart phones and iPads. I know my BlackBerry is on my belt all the time. These devices allow us to keep in constant contact with each other. Most of the time this is for the good, but Senator Al Franken and I have learned that there are some new applications available that are downright dangerous.
In a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee learned of a new application for mobile devices called “stalking apps.” These applications are designed to allow domestic abusers and stalkers to secretly track a victim’s movement and location, read a victim’s email and text messages, or listen to a victim’s phone calls — all without the victim’s knowledge or consent.
According to 2006 data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the Department of Justice, some 26,000 Americans are victims of GPS stalking annually, and that number is expected to be considerably larger this year.
Stalking applications are widely available and simple to install, usually by a spouse or partner. Anyone who leaves their mobile phone alone for five minutes could have stalking software installed without their knowledge.
After learning of this technology, Senator Franken and I led a bipartisan group of senators in asking the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department to determine if “stalking apps” are legal.
We understand that location-based services also offer consumers numerous benefits. They help users navigate commutes and avoid traffic, help locate lost or stolen wireless devices, and help parents keep track of their children. In fact, most major wireless carriers offer their customers legitimate services that allow them to track the locations of the users of their calling plans — especially minor children. While these services could be abused by individual customers, all major carriers take precautions pursuant to voluntary industry guidelines to notify a wireless user that he or she is being tracked through one of these services.
In contrast, “stalking apps” abuse and misuse location-based services to affirmatively facilitate stalking. These apps are designed to run secretly on a victim’s phone and are actually marketed to abusers as being “undetectable.” While many of these apps also advertise themselves as a mechanism for parents to keep tabs on their minor children, their design and marketing suggests that this is an attempt to legitimize an otherwise suspect activity.
Based upon what we have learned, in most cases, stalking apps’ intrusion into victims’ privacy and their potential for abuse will far outweigh any legitimate purpose that these apps may serve.
October 28, 2011