There are apps that let stalkers track their victims. Now there's a move in Washington to outlaw them. And while they're at it, some members of Congress would like us all to have a clear idea of which pieces of software for a smartphone keep track of our physical location. One of the sponsors of new legislation that has just come out of committee is Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota. Why is he pushing his Location Privacy Protection Act?
"I chair a new subcommittee on privacy technology and the law," says Senator Franken. "In our first hearing we had testimony from the Coalition for Battered Women. There was one woman in Northeast Minnesota who was being abused. She went to the county building where they had a domestic violence program. While she was there on her phone she got a message from her abuser saying 'why are you in the county building? Are you going to the domestic violence group there?' Whe went to the courhouse to get a restraining order against the guy and five minutes after she was there she got a message from him. It said 'why are you at the court house... are you getting a restraining order against me?'"
Franken says some apps advertise themselves as stalking apps, and that his legislation would criminalize them. He also points to numbers from a 2006 Department of Justice study that said 25,000 women were being stalked on an annual basis using simple GPS technology. Fast-forward into the smart phone era, and Franken says we're dealing with a lot more opportunities for stalkers to take advantage of new technologies. Granted, a lot of consumers welcome apps using the sort of location data that lets them, for instance, navigate, or give their location to help in an emergency. But he says we need more transparency from app makers on not only how they're using our location data but who they are sharing it with.
"I want them to not only have an informed choice but to have a choice," he says. "We've had so many cases where people's location data is being taken without them knowing after they've thought they turned off their location."
Some app makers in the industry have worried that the kind of thing Franken is talking about--a more obvious and clearly-stated permissions screen, for instance, when a user is first starting up an app--will stifle innovation. But the senator isn't worried about it. He says he's been working with the industry to exempt devices for which the new restrictions wouldn't make sense.
Of course, there's an issue with the Location Privacy Protection Act, which Franken has been working on since 2011. It'll never get voted on before Congress leaves this session. But Franken says getting the thing out of committee is an important step.
"We only got three votes against it, and that creates a record," he says. "And we're going to continue doing this until we get it done."