Tailing a philandering mate used to be so messy, complicated – and expensive. Private detectives aren’t cheap, after all, and someone always seems to end up dead – at least in the movies. But nowadays, suspicious spouses don’t need to call on Philip Marlowe. You can shadow your significant other just by installing Spouse Spy, or one of many similar apps, onto his or her cell phone.
A simple download lets you track comings and goings, read text messages, ogle photos, even listen in on conversations – all in real time. And of course, it’s all on the Q-T. – these apps are designed to be undetectable. But are they legal? A bipartisan group of senators, led by Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has asked the Department of Justice to look into whether these so-called “stalking apps” violate any laws.
If so, the senators are requesting that the DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission investigate and prosecute those companies that develop and market them. There’s no question that having your actions monitored via your Blackberry is creepy and dangerous – Bureau of Justice statistics estimate that about 26,000 Americans were victims of GPS stalking last year, and the number is growing. One Minnesota woman was tracked by her abuser via cell phone as she was out trying to get a restraining order against him. But some could argue that there’s a legitimate use for such a product – to keep tabs on your teen, a parent with Alzheimer's, or even your own mislaid cell phone.
So, do companies have a right to market the software, even if it could potentially be used for illegal spying? And which laws, if any, are being violated? Back in 1990, California was the first state to enact an anti-stalking law, but technology has moved on since then – have the laws kept up?
Have you been the victim of a cell-phone stalker? Would you use Spouse Spy on your own spouse? Is your Android watching you?
Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for Cnet News.com; writes the “Politech” blog
Susan Freiwald, professor of law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she teaches Cyberspace Law, Information Privacy Law, and Contracts