Privacy SOS

Nowhere to hide: location tracking by domestic violence abusers and government spooks

Did you know that most states don’t have laws on the books to prevent us from using GPS trackers or mobile spyware to track each other?

Our law has not only failed to keep up with government spying. It’s also way behind when it comes to the intersection of 21st century surveillance technology and domestic violence. Many states ban ordinary people from secretly wiretapping one another, but our legislatures have mostly failed to keep up as location tracking and surreptitious spyware have exploded onto the commercial market.

Thirty-three year old former New York resident Jackie Wisniewski is a good example of why we need to fix that problem, yesterday.

From WKBW news in New York:

Last June, 33-year old Jackie Wisniewski was shot to death by her ex-boyfriend inside the Erie County Medical Center.

Her killer was Dr. Timothy Jorden, a trauma surgeon, who had been stalking Wisniewski since they broke up.

Jorden later committed suicide.

Three months before she was killed, Jackie Wisniewski discovered that Jorden had put a GPS tracking device on her car.

Wisniewski reported it to police but did not file charges.

"At that point, being afraid for her life, she asked herself "If i do this will I be setting off the ticking time bomb?" said her brother Dave Wisniewski during the morning press conference.

"She had a decision to make, do I leave it alone where hopefully it goes away, or do I possibly make the situation worse. The one thing we will never do is, nor should anyone else, is question the decision made by a victim."

Under the current laws, it is not illegal to put a GPS tracking device on someone's vehicle without their consent – even if it is for the purposes of stalking.

Now a New York state legislator is trying to update the “Unlawful Surveillance in the Second Degree” statute to include GPS tracking. 

On the federal level, Senator Al Franken has introduced legislation that would ban companies from secretly tracking you through mobile spyware installed on your cell phone. He became aware of the problem when another domestic violence survivor appeared at his office, distraught. The Washington Post reported about her story:

A woman had entered a county building to meet with her advocate when she received a text message from her abuser asking her why she was there, according to congressional testimony delivered last year by the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Frightened, she and her advocate went to the local courthouse to file for a protective order. She got another text demanding to know why she was at the courthouse. They later determined her abuser was tracing her movements with an app that had been placed on her cellphone. The woman was not identified by name in the congressional testimony.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Software and Information Industry Association — a cell phone trade group — opposes Franken’s legislation, arguing that the industry can self-police. Likely the woman who was stalked by her abuser would disagree.

Another powerful force opposed to regulations to restrict location tracking is the Department of Justice, which has repeatedly warned about the threat posed by legislation that would force police and federal agencies to get warrants to track us as we go about our lives. Increasingly, the content of our communications is less useful to police than our physical location information. And while they are mostly required to get warrants for the former, they routinely use simple subpoenas to get the latter. The DOJ and police organizations, while they may soon be prepared to agree with warrant protections for email, balk at a warrant requirement for location tracking. 

But our travel patterns and locations tell the government a lot about us, and spooks should be required to show probable cause that we are engaged in criminal activity before they can follow us around, using our gadgets turned against us. Take action here (and, for Massachusetts residents, here) if you agree.

We all deserve to be protected from abusive spying, whether it’s done by a creepy ex-boyfriend or a government agent. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.