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Sen. Franken’s “Stalking Apps” Bill One Step Closer to Becoming Law

Legislation also prevents “unconscionable” practice of taking kids' location information without parents' knowledge or consent

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Today U.S. Sen. Al Franken's (D-Minn.) "Stalking Apps" bill took a giant step toward becoming law when it passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support.

The Location Protection Privacy Act of 2012 closes legal loopholes that allow stalking applications to exist on women's and girls' smartphones and send their location information to third parties without their knowledge.

Sen. Franken's bill fixes this problem by requiring all companies to get customers' permission before collecting their location data or sharing it with third parties. It also contains targeted provisions to protect against stalking apps.

The bill would also put an immediate end to the practice of taking kids' location information and sharing it without parents' knowledge or consent. A report released by the Federal Trade Commission Monday revealed that some of the most popular apps for children are engaging in this practice.

"I believe that Americans have the fundamental right to control who can track their location, and whether or not that information can be given to third parties," said Sen. Franken. "But right now, companies - some legitimate, some sleazy - are collecting your or your child's location and selling it to ad companies or who knows who else. Passing my bill out of committee means we're one step closer to ending this practice and ensuring people's privacy."

"The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women supports Senator Franken's Location Privacy Act," said Rebekah Moses, Program Manager for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. "This important legislation brings national awareness to perpetrators' widespread misuse of mobile technology to stalk intimate partners. The Act provides data privacy options that can be crucial to survivor safety. In addition, it offers law enforcement a tool to hold cyberstalkers accountable for their choice to perpetrate gender-based violence."

Sen. Franken's "Stalking Apps" bill:

  • Requires companies to get a customer's permission before collecting his or her location data or sharing it with non-governmental third parties;
  • Raises awareness and helps investigations of GPS stalking; and
  • Makes it a crime to intentionally operate a stalking application to facilitate stalking.

Sen. Franken's "Stalking Apps bill" has been endorsed by nearly every national domestic violence and consumer group in the country. You can read a full list here.

Sen. Franken's opening remarks can be read below.

As Prepared for Delivery

Remarks of Sen. Franken on Judiciary Committee Vote on the Location Privacy Protection Act

Mr. Chairman, before I begin I also want to thank the Ranking Member - he and his staff have engaged with me on this issue in good faith. I'm not sure we have him yet, but I hope to soon.

Location information is extremely sensitive information. With GPS technology, a smartphone will pinpoint its user down to 10 meters of accuracy. Someone who has this information doesn't just know where you live. They know the roads you take to work, where you drop your kids off at school, the church you attend and the doctors you visit.

But the companies that collect our location information are not protecting it the way they should. Last week, I talked about how half of the top apps for iPhone and Android give out their users' location to third parties - without their users' knowledge. I also talked about the iPhone and Carrier IQ location scandals.

But just this Monday, the FTC released a report on smartphone and tablet apps for children. The researchers at the FTC downloaded hundreds of apps onto their devices and tested them to see what they were transmitting to third parties. They found that twelve highly popular apps, apparently downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, were transmitting their users' precise geolocation to third parties without their parents' consent. We asked the researchers at the FTC: "Just how precise was that location?" They answered: "Exact location. It showed us sitting in the FTC's computer lab."

Mr. Chairman, it gets worse. Some app companies are actually developing and marketing stalking apps-apps specifically designed to help abusers stalk their victims. This is a victim's account from written testimony I received last May in a hearing in my Privacy Subcommitee. It is from a woman from Northern St. Louis County in Minnesota.

This woman went to a domestic violence program located within a county building. Within five minutes of entering the building, she received a text message from her abuser asking her why she was in the county building. The woman was frightened and asked an advocate to help her get an Order for Protection at the local courthouse. After filing for the Order, the woman received another text message from her abuser asking her why she was in the courthouse and if she was getting an Order for Protection against him. The advocates later realized that her abuser was tracking her through an app installed on her smartphone.

Over 25,000 women are stalked annually through the use of GPS technology - and mind you, these are figures from 2006, when there were at least six times fewer smartphones around. In researching these issues, I came across similar stories from Iowa, Wisconsin, Arizona, California, Texas, New York, Illinois, Delaware and Oklahoma. Without objection, Mr. Chairman, I ask that these documents be added to the record.

But Mr. Chairman, what is most troubling is this: Our law is not protecting location information, and our law is not protecting it the way it should. Our law does not clearly require a company to get your consent before getting your location information from your mobile device. Our law allows a company to legally give or sell that information to any third party other than the government. And even though current law prohibits an abuser from stalking his victim - it does not clearly prohibit a company developing and deploying stalking apps explicitly designed and intended to help abusers stalk their victims.

It is our job to fix all of these problems. My bill sets up a general rule for all companies: if a company wants to collect location information from a mobile device and if it wants to give that information to a third party, that company needs to get your permission first. And a company can't track you in secret. If an app or other software runs in a way that's invisible to a user, it needs to remind her that she is being tracked and give her a way to stop it.

Finally, my bill will criminalize the commercialization of stalking apps in a way that is intended to help stalkers. It will update Department of Justice's six year-old statistics on GPS stalking and its Internet resources to for victims. And it will encourage the DOJ to fund training for law enforcement, judges and prosecutors to help combat GPS stalking.

Mr. Chairman, my bill is co-sponsored by Senators Feinstein, Durbin, Coons and Blumenthal. It has the support of the nation's leading consumer groups and almost all of the leading national anti-domestic violence and anti-stalking groups. Without objection, I'll enter into the record a list of these groups and their letters of support.

Mr. Chairman, this bill is the culmination of a year and a half of research, oversight, and outreach. It is a strong but reasonable bill to address a large and dangerous problem. I urge my colleagues to vote to support it. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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