About 90 percent of American adults own cellphones. And the majority of those phones are packing location-tracking applications. Think about that for a second. The era of being able to keep your whereabouts private is more than over.

Or is it?

Shouldn't a consumer own his or her own location data? That's the question Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, is asking. He reintroduced this week a bill called the Location Privacy Protection Act of 2014, that is primarily directed at outlawing what he's dubbed GPS-enabled "stalking apps"--a small fraction of smartphone applications that are designed for the malicious tracking of individuals without their knowledge. The thing is, the bill could be applied much more broadly, affecting other location-aware apps created for perfectly legitimate uses. 

The Problem

The most recent Justice Department figures on cell-phone stalking are growing stale--they're from 2006--but they do illuminate a relatively unknown problem: There were 25,000 reported cases of GPS stalking that year. "Think of how much the use of GPS cell phones has increased since then," Franken said in a video (embedded below) explaining the goal of his legislation, which is co-sponsored by Senators Chris Coons, a Democrat from Deleware, and Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts. 

But the bill doesn't just seek to ban "the development, operation, and sale of GPS stalking apps," which is hard to disagree with. It takes a broader view of individual privacy, and would:

  • "Require that companies get individuals' permission before collecting location data off of their smartphones, tablets, or in-car navigation devices, and before sharing it with others. This rule doesn't apply to parents tracking kids, emergencies, and similar scenarios."
  • "Require that any company that collects the location data of 1,000 or more devices publicly disclose the data they're collecting, what they do with it, who they share it with, and how people can stop that collection or sharing."
  • "Stymie GPS stalking by preventing companies from collecting location data in secret." 

Franken seems to understand the distinction between useful and malicious GPS-data collection, saying a phone's ability to coordinate its location data with that on apps, "can be great, if you want to know where the nearest gas station or pizza parlor is, these apps can be very helpful. That's not what I'm talking about."

Even so, this could place a heavy burden on companies that create location-aware apps, both to seek more explicit approval from customers, and to share with the public more detailed information on the data they collect.

This is not the first time Franken has gone after this issue. Three years ago, he introduced the Location Protection Privacy Act of 2012, which would have amended federal criminal code to ban the collection of an individual's geolocation information from personal electronic devices. The bill made it through Senate committee, but never came to a vote. 

It'll be an interesting bill to follow this legislative season--and one that could have broad implications for tech startups around the world. For now, here's Franken explaining the bill's purpose:


Published on: Mar 28, 2014