Privacy SOS

Senator Franken introduces bill to stop your creep ex-lover from tracking you everywhere you go

Who is opposed to laws that would ban or limit people or institutions from secretly tracking your movements via your mobile phone? The Department of Justice and the Software and Information Industry Association, for starters.

Cell phone tracking is in the news again this week because Senator Al Franken is moving a bill that would ban companies from secretly tracking your location via your mobile phone. Apparently there are firms that make money off of selling this kind of surreptitious spyware to creeps who use it to track their spouses or children. Franken's bill would allow for the secret tracking of minors by their parents, but would ban adults from doing it to one another. 

The app stalking issue came to Franken's attention after a domestic violence survivor found out that her abuser was using such an application to track her movements and brought her story to his office. The Washington Post reports:

A domestic violence case in St. Louis County, Minn., helped persuade Franken to introduce his bill. 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.

Senator Franken's bill is mostly good — the piece about parents being able to secretly track their kids notwithstanding (as if there aren't abusive parents?) — but doesn't address the biggest cell phone tracker of them all: the US government. Perhaps Franken's strategy to segregate the government from the non-government tracking problems is a good one, so that the latter actually moves. After all, the Obama Justice Department is a powerful opponent of warrant requirements for law enforcement's location tracking, and legislators don't often do things that the top prosecutor says will impede investigations.

But would Congress pass a bill that stops us proles from spying on each other? Possibly! Onward, then.

The Post explains the Franken bill like this:

Franken’s proposal would make companies subject to civil liability if they fail to secure permission before obtaining location information from a person’s cellphone and sharing it with anyone else. They also would be liable if they fail to tell a user no later than seven days after the service begins that the program is running on their phone. Companies would face a criminal penalty if they knowingly operate an app with the intent to facilitate stalking.
The software industry opposes the legislation, saying that it will inhibit innovation (read: profit) and that "voluntary" enforcement mechanisms are working out totally fine, thank you very much. I imagine that people who have been victimized by stalkers using tracking apps on the market today, like the woman in St. Louis who brought her concerns to the Senator, would disagree with his assessment about the efficacy of this kind of corporate self-policing. Good on Franken for pushing the issue. We'd all be better off if it was harder for people to track our physical locations using our personal devices, turned against us. 
But we need to go much, much further in order to protect all of us from improper stalking, to make sure that the biggest violator of them all doesn't get a pass. Congress should pass the GPS Act, which would implement a simple warrant requirement for any kind of location tracking. Until then, even if Franken's bill moves, we can't really trust our cell phones aren't snitching on us everywhere we go — whether it's to the courthouse, the domestic violence center, the abortion clinic, the gym or the bar.
Take action now to urge your representatives to support the GPS Act. If you live in Massachusetts, take action to tell our state legislators to support a warrant requirement for our location information and other sensitive data.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.