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Witnesses Say Apps Increase Stalkers’ Capabilities

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Stalking victims face new threats in an era of smartphones and mobile apps and Congress should regulate them more closely, witnesses at a congressional hearing said Wednesday.

“Offenders will do anything they can to monitor victims,” said Cindy Southworth, vice president for development and innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Southworth said in the past stalkers would do things like check the odometers on their victims’ cars. Now, she said, some apps allow stalkers to effectively track all of the movements of their victims.

She spoke to a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee that was focused on so-called stalking apps that can be installed on phones and used to obtain tracking data and other personal information. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who led the hearing, has reintroduced legislation that would ban some apps and require companies to seek permission before collecting location data or sharing the information.

Detective Brian Hill, who has focused on stalking cases with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office in Andover, Minnesota, said new technology is “a tool to isolate victims.”

“They endanger domestic violence victims as we all increasingly use our cell phones,” he said.

Franken said he had heard numerous stories about stalking victims who have been intimidated and tracked by people using mobile apps, including some that are pitched as parental monitoring tools. He told the story of one Minnesota woman, whom he did not name, who went to a domestic violence center to get help only to receive a text from her abuser asking why she had gone there.

Franken said the woman then was taken to a county building to get a restraining order — and got another text asking her why she was in the county building.

“She was terrified,” Franken said.

Franken has introduced his legislation in previous sessions of Congress and it previously cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee. But it is unclear how quickly the bill can move through the Senate in an election year.

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, of Arizona, said he supported the idea of limiting stalking apps, but said he wanted to make sure that Franken’s bill was not overly broad and limited innovation.

“There are sections of the bill I think that are still a bit concerning,” in terms of innovation, Flake said.

Industry groups, who also spoke at Wednesday’s hearing, echoed Flake’s concerns.

Robert D. Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said it was important to tightly define to which apps the law would apply.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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