Using technology for stalking was back in the news this week. Earlier this week, I posted a link to an article about how Google Street View can be used to facilitate stalking when combined with a web site exploit that extracts the victim’s MAC address.
Dan Solove also discusses stalking over on Concurring Opinions. He comments on an article by Justin Sheck in the Wall Street Journal describing how GPS-based tracking or location services enables people to locate and stalk their victims. According to Scheck, a U.S. Justice Department report last year estimated that more than 25,000 adults in the U.S. are victims of GPS stalking annually, including by cellphone.
If the phone tracking can be readily turned off by a user, then it might not be effective in locating lost or kidnapped children — a very beneficial use. On the other hand, if it can’t be turned off by a user, it can be used by stalking spouses. I think the answer is to allow a user to turn it off — and to keep it turned off as a default. If the user hasn’t turned it on and there’s an emergency, then the tracking can be turned on by a person getting court authorization. This would prevent stalkers from using the service but would allow for legitimate uses.
Dan’s approach would also prevent carriers from amassing tremendous amounts of data about us that might be used against us at some point, and as someone who is bothered by the Big Brother technology, I think that would be a good thing. But would most stalking victims even know to turn off GPS on their cellphones? I’m not sure that they would. So why not make the default state OFF and it can only be turned on with court approval or in some other exceptional circumstances?
I can already envision the arguments against his approach. I can already see LEO’s shaking their head “no” in response to his idea, and arguing in “exigent circumstances,” they do not want to have to apply for a court order. I can also imagine parents who do not want their minor children to have the ability to turn the GPS off, particularly if they’re parenting a teen who has run away in the past, and caregivers who may be glad that an elderly relative who “wanders” due to dementia may have GPS enabled on their phone. But can’t we accommodate those situations while still protecting the privacy of the vast majority of cellphone users?