Why Advertisers Don’t Like a Bill to Ban Stalker Apps

A privacy bill does much more than ban pernicious apps.

The Google Maps app is seen on an Apple iPhone 4S on December 13, 2012 in Fairfax, California. Three months after Apple removed the popular Google Maps from its operating system to replace it with its own mapping software, a Google Maps app has been added to the iTunes store. Apple Maps were widely panned in tech reviews and among customers, the fallout resulting in the dismissal of the top executive in charge of Apple's mobile operating system.
National Journal
Laura Ryan
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Laura Ryan
June 5, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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