Senator Franken Moves To Stop Your Phone From Enabling Stalking

smartphone apps

Your apps are tracking you … and are not all of them have your best interests at heart. Senator Al Franken (MN-D) wants to do something about that. Sure, those tracking and GPS apps can be really handy, especially for parents who want to keep track of their kids, but it’s not just the parents that can track them. The Federal Trade Commission is speaking out about how this information is used and who can obtain it, usually without the person’s knowledge. Most phones – and many other devices – now have a built-in geolocation app which can track a device user’s location. This information can then be shared, usually with advertisers, but those with malicious intent can also obtain it.

The primary concern is that stalkers can surreptitiously track someone using geolocation. Franken has proposed legislation that would require companies that create and sell such apps to get permission from the user before they are installed. His bill deals with two kinds of geolocation apps: cyberstalking apps and marketing apps. The bill would also prohibit the monitoring of people’s locations. Naturally, industry representatives oppose such a bill.

Cyberstalking apps are barely legal but that’s enough of an opening for the creators and sellers of them to get away with it. As it is, these apps can be installed on a person’s device without their knowledge or consent. Once installed, they can track the person’s every movement. One app – “Is He Cheating?” – is sold to users with the intent of finding out if a boyfriend or spouse is cheating on the customer so that they can “Track ’em and Bust ’em Today!” Another app’s website includes a diagram explaining how to get the other person’s phone and secretly install the program. Both apps then send tracking information via email.

This loophole may be closing very quickly, however. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill last week that will make it a crime to create and sell apps for the intention of stalking. If this becomes law, it would require the companies to disclose the apps’ existence on a device. Technically, it is illegal for one party to install such software covertly on a loved one’s device, as existing stalking and wiretapping laws prohibit it. Franken’s legislation would extend those laws – and add civil liability – to the software companies that sell those apps if they knowingly sell and operate and app with the intent to aid in stalking.

The companies that offer this kind of app say that they don’t sell them unless the buyer is the one installing the app on their own phone or device. There are also companies that sell software for  parents to track their minor children. Franken and his supporters say that there is no way to ensure that these apps are being used in a legal and ethical manner. These apps can be installed surprisingly fast and, once on board, operate invisibly. They record calls and messages, web browsing and location information and then email that information to the buyer. Victim’s rights groups, especially involving domestic violence, support Franken’s bill saying that it would eliminate a tool that stalkers rely on.

Marketing apps track a device user so that they can offer personalized advertising and marketing. Franken wants parents to know that, as they track their children’s movements, so do others. The FTC published a report a few weeks ago explaining how mobile phone apps, especially those aimed for children, raise privacy concerns. The report says that hundreds of apps shared information with third parties without disclosing this to parents and this has resulted in some companies collecting a child’s location and alerting advertisers. Existing law covers the telephone companies, but not the companies that sell and operate add-on software. Franken’s proposal fixes that.

Of course, the industry opposes the bill. They say that user-consent would “impede innovation” while not suitably addressing the cyber-stalking issue. David LeDuc, Senior Director for Public Policy at the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), states that voluntary codes of conduct for the industry are more effective methods for increasing transparency and consumer confidence. In other words, let the industry self-police.

Anita Ramasastry, writing for, sums it up well:

“The mobile-app transparency initiative is indeed an important measure—and it is laudable that the government is attempting to create a code of practice that involves the government, the private sector, and civil society.  But Franken’s proposal is a broader initiative that focuses on the ways in which app developers provide notice to users about the information they collect. Thus, it focuses on broader transparency goals, as app developers may be collecting information about more than just a person’s geolocation.”

Senator Franken held hearings last year on privacy in the cyber-world, during which he heard testimony from domestic violence victims in his home state of Minnesota. This was an impetus for Franken to write the current proposal. Since taking office, Franken has focused on Internet and cyber issues. He is a strident proponent for Net Neutrality, calling it the “free speech issue of our time.”