The U.S. Congress must pass legislation to ban mobile spying apps in order to protect victims of domestic violence, a senator said Wednesday.
Groups aiding victims of domestic violence report growing numbers of clients being stalked through mobile apps secretly installed on their phones by abusers, said Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat. Tens of thousands of U.S. residents are stalked each year through spy apps, he said.
One mobile app advertises itself as a way to track cheating spouses as a "spy in their pocket," said Franken, during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's privacy and technology subcommittee. One other spy app advertised that it allowed users to "track every text, every call, and every move they make," he said.
While police can arrest stalkers, "it's not clearly illegal to make and to market and to sell a stalking app," Franken added. "Nothing happened to the companies making money off of the stalking."
A bill pushed by Franken would ban the sale of mobile spying apps, and also regulate the commercial collection of geolocation data. Some critics questioned Wednesday whether his Location Privacy Protection Act is too broad, however.
While many mobile spy apps bill themselves as allowing users to monitor their children or employees, they are often used for stalking, critics said. The apps call themselves parental monitoring apps "because they seem more friendly that way," said Detective Brian Hill of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota.
Legitimate apps that monitor children's location or employee activity don't need to hide themselves on mobile phones, said Cindy Southworth, vice president of development and innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
With legitimate parental monitoring apps, "the child knows they're being monitored," she said. "From the moment they turn the computer on, they can see that there's monitoring happening."
Franken called on Congress to pass the Location Privacy Protection Act, which would ban the development and sale of GPS stalking apps.
The bill would also require companies to get permission from smartphone, tablet and car navigation device owners before collecting location information, except in emergencies. It would require companies collecting the location data from more than 1,000 devices to post information online about the kind of data they collect, how they share it and how people can stop the collection.
Franken and witnesses at the hearing referenced several mobile spy apps. Representatives of Spyera and Flexispy, two apps called out by Franken, didn't immediately return messages seeking comment on his criticisms.
While senators and witnesses applauded Franken's effort to target cyberstalking, some raised concerns that the bill may be too broad. The bill's requirement that mobile apps or devices that track location get a user's permission may not work in all cases, said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused think tank.
Some geolocation devices, such as wearable exercise-tracking equipment, don't have an interface to allow notification, Atkinson said. Another device that enables parents to track the location of their children is a GPS tracker that fits in a backpack but doesn't have an interface, he said.
Atkinson urged lawmakers to focus on cyberstalking and not on limiting the commercial use of geolocation information. Regulating how businesses can use geolocation information would "stifle innovation in an area that is rapidly evolving," he said.
The bill doesn't need to address many apps that have geolocation components to deal with cyberstalking, Atkinson said. A weather app, for example, wouldn't be useful to a stalker because he wouldn't have access to it on the victim's phone, he said.
The bill's provision allowing private lawsuits against app makers is also worrisome, Atkinson said. Many small app developers, "if they were faced with the potential of a $1 million fine for making a small coding mistake, or putting something inaccurate on a website, I believe would think twice about developing a mobile app," he said.
Franken questioned the concerns raised by Atkinson and some other senators.
"If we want to stop stalking apps, we can't target just apps that label themselves as stalking apps," he said. "We also have to lay down a few basic rules of the road."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.