Why Stalking Apps Have To Go

The Location Privacy Protection Act would protect consumers from apps that share their location with third parties without their consent. Here’s why the bill’s passage in 2013 is a good idea.

This spring, an iPhone app called “Girls Around Me” attracted media scrutiny (and sharp critique) for providing substantial private information about women to the app’s users — using Foursquare to find them and Facebook to dig for details — without obtaining these women’s consent. Foursquare subsequently found the app in violation of their privacy policy and revoked Girls Around Me’s API access. Apple followed suit and removed the app from the iTunes store.

That’s how just one particularly egregious stalking app was caught and cut off. But the problem isn’t that there are a handful of intentionally, willfully stalkerish apps available for download and purchase. The other major cause for concern comes from the fact that popular apps we use on our devices share our locations without making us fully aware of that fact: While things have improved since then, a 2010 study by the Wall Street Journal found that 47 of the 101 examined apps transmitted users’ phone locations to third parties in some way without obtaining users’ permission first.

The Location Privacy Protection Act of 2012 (also known as the “Stalking Apps Bill”) was, on the basis of these and related privacy concerns, first introduced to Congress in 2011 by Senator Al Franken (DFL, Minnesota). Earlier this month, the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support.

Senator Franken introducing the Location Privacy Protection Act in 2011.

The bill would criminalize stalking apps: apps designed exclusively to collect and share private information, many of which market themselves as such. It would also require phone companies to obtain users’ permission before collecting and sharing location data with third parties and/or other companies — a practice that is currently legal, despite being somewhat at odds with the 2012 Supreme Court case United States vs. Jones, which ruled that the government must obtain a warrant before tracking someone using GPS.

Senator Franken points to this and other contradictions in the bill itself:

When a person uses a smartphone to place a phone call to a business, that person’s wireless company can’t disclose his location information to third parties without first getting his express consent. But when that same person uses that same phone to look up that business on the Internet, his wireless company can legally disclose his location to anyone other than the government.

Many smartphone users have grown accustomed to sharing information via the Internet we wouldn’t otherwise share, and to some extent accept that lost privacy is part of the deal; it’s likely that part of the reason “Girls Around Me” attracted so much negativity was for the boldness and directness with which it worked to do what so many other apps continue to do on the sly.

But the Location Privacy Protection Act includes language that suggests our relative comfort with shared location data ought to be reexamined. The bill states: “In January 2009, a special report by the Department of Justice revealed that, based on 2006 data, approximately 26,000 persons are victims of GPS stalking annually, including by cellphone.” The National Women’s Law Center echoes these concerns, noting that these figures are likely well above the 2006 estimates, and that GPS technology can often play a significant role in aiding those who perpetrate violence against women.

The Location Privacy Protection Act grants consumers the choice to either share their locations or to not, and works to eliminate those apps that would intentionally grant users the ability to stalk unknowing victims. Having a phone and an Internet connection may mean that some sharing of personal information is to be expected, but possessing, at the very least, the ability to keep our own movements private is something we would be wise to demand from cellphone companies.

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