A Senate bill that aims to stop stalkers from tracking down their victims with GPS apps has hit a hurdle with the advertising industry.
Although the legislation focuses on outlawing so-called "stalker apps," it includes broader privacy regulations that advertisers say could put a damper on the fastest-growing part of their industry: mobile advertising.
"My bill would shut down [stalker] apps once and for all," Democratic Sen. Al Franken said during a hearing Wednesday on his bill, the Location Privacy Protection Act of 2014. "But my bill doesn't protect just victims of stalking. It protects everyone who uses a smartphone, an in-car navigation device, or any mobile device connected to the Internet.
The kinds of apps Franken's latest bill targets use GPS devices to secretly track an individual's movements without his or her consent or knowledge. Such apps have led to incidences of physical assault and even homicide, according to Cindy Southworth, vice president of development and innovation at the U.S. National Network to End Domestic Violence, who testified at the hearing Wednesday.
But the legislation does much more than outlaw GPS stalking. The bill, which Franken first introduced in 2012, would also require apps to ask individuals' permission before collecting their geographical data and tell users whom they are sharing their information with.
Advertisers say these regulations would be bad for business. Geographic information is the golden goose of mobile advertising, which is an increasingly large chunk of the $43 billion advertising industry, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an online advertising trade group.
"The misappropriation of a user's data for criminal activity is distinctly different from the legitimate commercial practices that consumers have come to expect and value; and, is responsible for much of the free or low-cost digital services and applications we enjoy today," IAB said in a statement.
It's hard to know how many people have been victims of stalker apps. The most recent data are from 2006, when the Justice Department estimated approximately 25,000 cases of GPS stalking — a year before the introduction of the iPhone.
But given the pervasiveness of mobile phones, it's safe to say the number has grown. "In some tragic cases, GPS devices and apps may have actually aided the offender in locating the victim to commit murder," Southworth said in Wednesday's hearing.
A simple ban on apps used for stalking purposes would not fix the problem because some stalker apps operate under the guise of another name, like a baby-monitoring device, or surreptitiously use data from other apps without users' knowledge.
Franken made changes to the 2014 bill to address industry concerns from the first go-around. For example, the 2012 bill would have required companies to tell users exactly whom they are sharing their information with, but the 2014 bill is modified that so companies would only have to disclose categories.