Franken: ‘Stalking apps must be shut down’

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) wants the apps that allow abusers to digitally track their victims to be shut down.

“Stalking apps must be shut down,” he said Wednesday during a hearing on his Location Privacy Protection Act, which would ban stalking apps and require companies to get users’ permission before collecting or sharing location data.

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Franken chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, which held Wednesday’s hearing.

“They market themselves directly and brazenly to stalkers” and “hurt tens of thousands of people,” Franken said, citing the example of a domestic violence victim whose abuser was able to track her as she went to file a restraining order against him.

But Franken — pointing to testimony from representatives from the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a Minnesota County Sheriff’s Office, the National Consumers League and the National Network to End Domestic Violence — said his effort must address the apps that collect and share location information without users’ consent.

He pointed to apps that rebrand themselves as tracking apps for parents or employers once they face criticism for being “stalking apps” that enable domestic abuse.

“A lot of people will say, ‘Why don’t you just go after stalking apps?’ … If we want to stop stalking apps, we can't target just apps that label themselves as stalking apps,” he said.

Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, pointed her agency’s recent action against a flashlight app that, without users’ knowledge, collected and shared users’ location information.

She also pushed back on the usual response from the online advertising industry — which often opposes measures that would restrict the collection and sharing of user data — that self-regulation can protect against privacy invasions.

“Many industry groups and industry companies say they implement opt in,” meaning consumers need to give consent before their location information can be collected or shared, she said.

But “this opt-in standard is not being complied with on a regular basis,” she continued, pointing to enforcement actions at the FTC.

Citing testimony from the Digital Advertising Alliance and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, subcommittee ranking member Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) expressed concerns that government regulation could harm innovation and wondered whether self-regulation “would be far more nimble” than law.

Franken replied that his bill “would not create problems for industry,” but he is open to feedback on the bill.

“We’ll work to address that feedback to make any needed improvements to the bill” before it goes before the committee for a vote, he said.