Stalking apps must be banned, U.S. lawmaker argues

Spying on someone's emails, text messages, photos or instant chat messages on a smartphone? There are apps for all that and more and they should be shut down, according to U.S. Senator Al Franken.

Spying apps allow users to secretly monitor emails, texts, photos and more

A woman speaks on her iPhone as she walks on a busy street in downtown Shanghai. Apps that can be installed in stealth mode on smartphones are being used by stalkers to track the movements and communications of their victims, lawmakers in Washington recently heard. One U.S. senator is trying to ban the apps. (Aly Song/Reuters)

For many smartphone users their built-in GPS has been a saviour, helping with directions or perhaps identifying the closest Starbucks when in need of a caffeine fix. Apps that use geolocation services have many benefits, but as lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington recently heard, there is also a dark side.

Spying apps, also known as stalking apps, are of great concern to victims of domestic abuse and some law enforcement, consumer and privacy advocates are backing their calls to ban them or at least impose restrictions.

The spying functions these apps provide are extensive: they can pinpoint someone’s physical location, follow travel routes, read email, text messages and instant chat conversations, check the phone’s internet browser history, and even listen to and record phone conversations. 

The device’s microphone can be remotely activated so it’s used as a bugging device. Photos, the address book and calendar appointments can all be viewed. User names and passwords can be lifted making it easy to peek into someone’s Facebook or other online accounts.

The phone’s activities are logged on the app provider’s website and the tracker, possibly a stalker, can review them at any time when they access their secure account. The apps are stealth – they don’t appear as an installed app so whoever’s phone they are put on have no way of knowing they are there.

The app makers market their products to parents and employers looking to keep tabs on their children and employees, but also to spouses who suspect their other half of cheating.

Apps can operate in stealth mode

“We all use our mobile phones incessantly, and obviously your cheating spouse is using it to facilitate his/her adultery too,” one company says on its website. It advertises that its spying app can help collect incriminating evidence.

“It's particularly effective as most people aren't aware this kind of cellphone software even exists, and since they've no way of knowing their phone communications are being monitored, they tend to be careless about the evidence they leave behind.”

At the same time as touting the covert nature of the apps, the companies write legal disclaimers and warnings that the technology should be used in compliance with state and federal laws and that it may be illegal to use unless the purchaser of the app owns the phone or has consent from the phone’s owner.
Senator Al Franken questions a panel of witnesses during a committee hearing in December 2013. He is proposing legislation to ban 'stalking apps.' (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

In other words, a boss should legally tell an employee that their work-provided phone is being monitored. But if the app is to be used to catch a cheating spouse, or to stalk an ex-partner, for example, it’s more than likely the app was surreptitiously installed without permission.

The warnings are not heeded by those intent on stalking someone, according to members of law enforcement and domestic violence support groups whose members recently testified at a hearing in Washington, D.C.

If they were really being used for legitimate purposes, the apps wouldn’t operate in secret, the critics argue.

Brian Hill, a Minnesota detective who investigates domestic and sexual violence, told the committee that many police departments don’t have the resources or training to thoroughly investigate cyberstalking via mobile phones.

His department is currently investigating a homicide where the victim’s phone had spy software on it. The committee heard other stories, including one about a woman who went to a courthouse to get a restraining order and moments later got a text message from her stalker saying he knew she was there.

Cindy Southworth from the National Network to End Domestic Violence said the spying apps are brazenly marketed to stalkers and that advertising to parents and employers is just a cover. 

No matter what we do, no matter what form this bill takes, we have to stop these apps.- U.S. Senator Al Franken on his proposed legislation

One website uses a photo of a man grabbing a woman by the arm in its section explaining how the app can be used to catch a cheating spouse. She has a black eye and bruises on her cheek and forehead.

Southworth said the apps likely violate the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, because they intercept communications, yet there has been no crackdown on them.

Stalking someone is illegal but selling an app to facilitate it isn’t and Senator Al Franken is trying to change that. He has written a bill proposing the location privacy protection act that would prohibit apps designed to help stalkers. It would also let police seize the money companies make from them and require the U.S. Department of Justice to collect up-to-date statistics.

Legal loopholes need to be closed

In 2006, it was estimated that 25,000 Americans were being stalked with GPS technology annually. Smartphone technology has advanced since then and stalkers are taking advantage of the changes.

Franken argues that even when apps are used legitimately, the data they collect isn’t always well-protected and is sometimes given to third parties without consent.

Over time, a detailed profile of individuals can be created with the data – where they bank and shop, what routes they take to and from work, for example. Advertisers are eager to get their hands on that data, but it’s concerning for consumer, privacy and cybersecurity experts.

Voluntary codes of conduct aren’t good enough, they insist. Franken says his bill closes legal loopholes and makes exceptions for legitimate uses for GPS tracking, such as cases of emergency.

He says the measures meant to crack down on stalking apps are common sense, but the bill has its critics.

The Digital Advertising Alliance, for one, balks at legislation and advocates instead for self-regulation saying it best responds to quickly developing technology without stifling innovation. A think-tank called the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation also raised concerns at the hearing and said new laws are “premature.”

Franken argues his bill will protect consumer’s privacy and won’t inhibit innovation when it comes to useful and legitimate apps. He is willing to modify the bill before it comes to a vote, but something must be done, he argues.

“Stalking apps must be shut down. It is unacceptable in this day and age companies are making money off of stalking and brazenly marketing themselves as stalkers,” he said at the hearing.

“It's equally unacceptable that our laws have loopholes that let them do this. No matter what we do, no matter what form this bill takes, we have to stop these apps.”