Smartphone Apps and Stalking

Posted on January 25, 2017
These days, wherever people go, their smartphones follow—often collecting location data along the way. You may choose to download an app to your phone to share this information. For example, an app can show your friend how far away you are and when you can be expected to arrive. However, if someone downloads one of these apps without your knowledge, he or she could use that information to reveal sensitive information about you, such as whether you visited a doctor or an attorney. For National Stalking Awareness Month, the WatchBlog is looking at how some smartphone apps can facilitate stalking and how the federal government is trying to protect potential victims.

Figure 1: Example of How a GPS-Based Smartphone Location Tracking App Operates (Excerpted from GAO-16-317)

How tracking apps are marketed Tracking apps can be useful in a variety of ways, such as helping a business track its deliveries. Parents with children may want to know where they are to help ensure their safety. However, about one-third of the tracking app product websites we reviewed explicitly marketed their product as being able to track the location and intercept the communications of children, employees, or intimate partners without their knowledge. Some websites marketed products with additional monitoring capabilities, including:
  • geo-fencing (defining a virtual boundary around the person being tracked),
  • intercepting and reading e-mail messages,
  • intercepting and reading text messages,
  • accessing and reading call history,
  • viewing pictures on the tracked smartphone,
  • listening in on and recording phone calls,
  • accessing and reading the phone’s web browsing history,
  • accessing and reading social media posts, and
  • using the smartphone’s speaker to listen in on conversations or other audible sounds taking place near the phone.
Under the federal wiretap statute, it is illegal for any unauthorized person to surreptitiously intercept any wire, oral, or electronic communications such as e-mails, texts, or phone conversations, or to manufacture, advertise, or sell devices primarily useful for these purposes. However, courts have generally found that “protected communications” does not include location under the federal wiretap statute. Some stakeholders we spoke with suggested amending the statute to include it, citing the potential for serious violence in some location tracking cases. The federal fight against smartphone stalking The Department of Justice has prosecuted both an individual smartphone stalker and a tracking app manufacturer under federal wiretap laws. Education has also been a key element of the government’s efforts to protect people from unwanted tracking, including:
  • DOJ’s funding of the Stalking Resource Center helped provide training and technical assistance to law enforcement, victim service professionals, and policymakers to help them more effectively respond to stalking.
  • The Federal Trade Commission’s February 2015 article on technology tips for domestic violence and stalking victims.
To learn more about issues surrounding surreptitious tracking apps, check out our full report or listen to the podcast with Mark Goldstein, a director in our Physical Infrastructure team.