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The Bill To Ban Stalking Apps Would Ban More Than Stalking Apps

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Senator Al Franken speaks during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee December 11, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Alex Wong—Getty Images

It sounds like a simple idea: Outlaw technology that allows stalkers to trace your movements without permission. But advertisers are worried it goes too far.

Late last month, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken introduced a bill to ban so-called “stalking apps,” hidden programs that predators can use to track the location of victims by hijacking their smartphone geolocation data. For Franken, it was a do-over, with slightly tweaked legislative language. His first attempt, before the 2012 election, failed to make it to the Senate floor, in part because of concerns from deep pocketed interest groups.

None of those groups, of course, were advocating for the rights of stalkers. The opposition arose because the original bill did more than outlaw smartphone apps for creeps. As the bill’s title suggests, “The Location Privacy Protection Act” is a volley in the privacy wars, pitting privacy advocates against corporations, governments and stalkers alike in the fight to retain control over the increasingly rich trail of personal information we leave behind in our digital detritus.

“My commonsense bill will help a whole range of people—including victims of domestic violence and stalking victim,” Sen. Franken, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on privacy and technology, said in a statement announcing the new bill. “My bill would finally put an end to GPS stalking apps that allow abusers to secretly track their victims. It would also give consumers more control over their very sensitive location data.”

It’s hard to say how many people exactly have been the victims of GPS stalking. A Wall Street Journal analysis of a Department of Justice Report using data from 2006, found that “more than 25,000” U.S. adults were the victims of GPS stalking every year. But in 2006, only about 6% of the cell phones sold in the U.S. were smartphones, the sort with geo-location capabilities; many of those counted in 2006 may have been stalked with simpler GPS trackers, like the kind you can stick under a car. As late as 2011, only 35% of U.S. adults owned smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. By, 2013 that number was 56%.

The apps in question give the aspiring stalker information on the locations of their mark, and they are marketed with names along the lines of “Girlfriend Tracker” or “EZ Spy.” (To find the real names, you will have to look elsewhere.) Some are keen enough to couch their apps as services for monitoring for small children or errant employees while others are more direct, emphasizing cheating spouses.

“We see tons of cases where abusers and stalkers use apps to stalk their victims,” said Cindy Southworth of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Sometimes an app store can be convinced to stop hosting a GPS tracking app, she said, but “it’s sort of like wack-a-mole.” Ilse Knecht, of the National Center for Victims of Crime, also said she sees numerous cases of people—usually, though not always, women—stalked via GPS tracker apps.

But what is a clear cut case of privacy violations for victims-rights advocates is a matter of commerce for many emerging technology companies. In fact, the initial bill would not just impact stalkers. “If that were just in and of itself the bill, we could happily support that,” said Sarah Hudgins, public policy director for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group for the digital advertising industry. “Unfortunately, it’s sort of two bills in one.”

The IAB objects to restrictions the bill places on an aspect of their industry likely to become increasingly important in the future: mobile marketing, wherein an advertiser tailors ads to the location of a smartphone user, like a special deal at a coffee shop nearby, for example. Though still a nascent sector of the advertising business at large, many in the industry believe mobile marketing could be the Next Big Thing for digital advertising.

Franken’s 2012 bill has been altered to reflect some ad industry concerns. A requirement that any apps collecting your location data disclose the specific companies to whom they’re selling the data, for example, has been eased to disclosing just the “categories” of companies. A cap of $1 million has been placed on damages for negligent violations, whereas no cap existed before. Still, as it exists today, Hudgins said, IAB does not support Franken’s measure.

What’s next for the bill is unclear and the measure has not yet been fully taken up in the House. The 2012 version enjoyed strong support, however, and this iteration may well come to a Senate floor vote even with out the support of digital advertisers. “All we’re saying,” said Knecht, of the National Center for Victims of Crime, “is, basically, you have to get somebody’s permission before you can get their geo-location information.”

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