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“He sees you when you’re sleeping”—Does Santa use stalker apps?

Having a smartphone with GPS is great, right? We can map directions, find the best places to eat in the area, and have a car come pick us up wherever we are. But it can also be scary and dangerous:

  • A man in Arizona stalked his wife by tracking her cellphone, and murdered their two children, before shooting himself.
  • A Texas woman packed up her car and drove to a friend’s house after her husband assaulted her, only to have him secretly track her through her phone’s GPS and show up, assault her again, and take the car.
  • Near Seattle, a mechanic tracked his wife’s cellphone, found her at a store with another man, and shot and killed their five children and then himself.

Technology that allows a third party to monitor a smartphone user’s location is frighteningly prevalent. In December 2010, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed that of the 101 top smartphone apps, nearly half (47) disclosed a user’s location to third parties, typically without the user’s consent. Many of these are “stalking apps,” which are used to stalk and harass women.

In January 2009, a report by the Department of Justice revealed that approximately 26,000 persons are victims of GPS stalking annually, including by cell phone. But since this report was based on 2006 data, this figure likely grossly understates the scope of this type of abuse. In the intervening six years since 2006, smartphone use has skyrocketed; now, nearly half the adults in the U.S. have smartphones.

That’s why the National Women’s Law Center supports the Location Privacy Protection Act of 2012, which the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on next week. The LPPA will require companies to obtain a customer’s consent before collecting his or her data or sharing it with non-governmental third parties. It also provides for the collection of much-needed data: it requires a study examining the role geo-location technology plays in violence against women.

The abuse of location technology to perpetrate violence against women is pervasive and must be stopped. The LPPA will help to prevent such abuse.