In an effort to broaden a consumer protection law aimed at squelching devices and apps that track users’ location secretly, United States Senator Al Franken introduced new legislation to ban stalking apps. Franken is one of the U.S. Senate’s strongest defenders of individual privacy rights and has introduced a similar type of legislation in the past - also trying to ban these stalking apps.
It seems like the marketing and sale of monitoring apps should not even be legal. But, the explanation for allowing such apps is complicated. Despite the obvious likelihood of abuse of spying apps, apps that can read text messages, track location and monitor calls can also have legitimate purposes.
The proposed law introduced by Franken underlines the whole mess: he wants to ban these apps’ use for cyberstalking, but still permit uses such as location of users in distress by emergency services and permitting parents to monitor their children.
A year ago, Franken sought out the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate and crack down on stalking apps. In the spring of this year, Franken requested another investigation by the DOJ and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to further crack down on the apps after a huge amount of information collected by the stalking app, mSpy, was leaked on the Dark Web.
Franken argues that his newly proposed legislation would close various legal loopholes by requiring the apps to affirmatively have users’ permission before collecting personal data such as location information and before sharing such information with third parties. It would also ban the “development, operation, and sale of GPS stalking apps.”
Companies that produce these types of apps, like mSpy and StealthGenie, operate in a legal gray area because there are some legitimate uses for their programs. Yet, the CEO of StealthGenie, Hammad Akbar, was indicted in 2014 for developing and selling complex spyware, and was subsequently fined $500,000.
The DOJ noted that Akbar admitted in various emails that his company’s business plan was to explicitly target the “spousal cheat” market for his stalking app. That was the line crossing that caused his downfall.
Interestingly, StealthGenie and mSpy are still in business as they market their apps for “legitimate” uses that, as of now, allow them to avoid breaking laws.
Calling the use of these apps “unconscionable” as they pose serious threats to stalking and domestic violence victims, Franken notes that they presently are “perfectly legal” in the United States.
Whatever the state of legality, stalking apps are not something you want on your mobile devices without your consent.