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Technology used for stalking creates conundrum

Friday, January 11, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — It started with harassing phone calls, then quickly escalated to more. He would drive by her house in the overnight hours, taking pictures of her through her bedroom window. He scattered nails and screws in her driveway. He dug scratches into her car finish.

Then, on Aug. 21, the woman — who is in her 30s, lives in St. Louis and is afraid to give her name because of the experience — made a frightening discovery. Hidden in the undercarriage of her vehicle was a white plastic device held together with a magnet and electrical tape. It was a GPS tracker.

Every street she traveled, every turn she took, everywhere she went — he knew.

The woman — who applied for a protective order with the courts that same day — is not alone in the experience. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that of the 3.4 million known stalking cases each year, 1 in 4 involves use of some type of technology. Electronic monitoring plays a role in 1 of 13 cases; GPS tracking is used in one-tenth of those.

Victims' advocates say the actual numbers are far higher. The statistics date to 2006, which was — for a sense of the technological timeline — a year before the iPhone was introduced. More recent numbers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly 40 percent of female stalking victims, and more than 30 percent of male stalking victims, report being watched or followed by some sort of device. It does not break down numbers by the type used.

"Technology itself is not the problem — it doesn't cause stalking. But it does facilitate it," said Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center at The National Center for Victims of Crime, in Washington.

Today, anyone can go online or visit an electronics store to buy software that allows tracking and trolling of a phone, or a GPS tracker that can be hidden on a vehicle. Some services are as cheap as 50 cents a day.

Installed surreptitiously on someone's cellphone, "spyware" can provide remote access to everything, as well as real-time information on its location. It can even use the phone to pick up conversations, both over the air and in person.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has sponsored a bill that would ban "stalking apps." The bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. Some cellphone companies will text customers if tracking software is activated on their phones and shut it off upon request from law enforcement.

Sellers of tracking devices tout legitimate uses, such as helping parents track children. Some also hint at, or boldly pitch, more nefarious uses. One company selling GPS gear, for example, seems to suggest on its website that there is no difference between use by private individuals or law enforcement.

"Whatever your needs may be, there is a personal GPS tracker designed specifically to fit them," the advertisement reads. "For instance, covert GPS tracking is being used by private detectives and law enforcement in both criminal and civil proceedings. Jealous spouses are employing the use of a GPS tracking device in their vehicles, alongside a private detective, to check on the faithfulness or honesty of a spouse."

But, in fact, police must obtain a warrant, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year recognized the involved privacy concerns.

In the St. Louis case, the woman was rattled by the discovery that she had been followed, electronically, without knowing it, said her attorney, Terri Johnson. The woman declined an interview for this article.

But court records outline the progression of events, and an investigation by a St. Louis police detective who intended to seek stalking charges against the man. He was much older than the woman and traveled in her social circles. He died Nov. 1, about a month after police served a search warrant on his phone.

Johnson said her client never would have thought to look for a GPS device under her car were it not for a tip from an acquaintance of the man.

"It's very frightening, because there's no getting away from it," the lawyer said. "In a way, it's scarier than regular stalking because you can't hide."

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce's office could identify only one GPS stalking case in which charges were brought. William Ryan Woods, 36, who was charged in June, admitted attaching a device to his estranged wife's vehicle despite a court order to stay away from her. The case is pending.

St. Louis County police and prosecutors also knew of only one instance there, involving a divorced couple. The woman reported in June that she found a tracking device on her car after getting calls from her ex-husband making it clear he was monitoring her whereabouts. Police presented the case to prosecutors, but as they were reviewing it, the woman decided not to press charges.

Sophya Qureshi Raza, a private attorney who practices family law in the St. Louis region, said she has seen an increasing number of instances over the past year, including three she handled.

The worst of them, she said, involved a husband in St. Louis County who downloaded software into his wife's phone to show her location and record her conversations. The wife found out, Raza said, by finding a purchase receipt under couch cushions.

Raza, a partner at Danna McKitrick, successfully argued that the husband's actions constituted stalking under Missouri's adult abuse law and required a protective order, the same result as in her other two cases.

But most often, she said, judges allow such tracking in divorce cases, unless there is a clear threat or harassment.

"I think it's a case where the statute hasn't caught up with technology," the lawyer said.

Ed Magee, a spokesman for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, said that because the statute does not specifically address GPS tracking, prosecutors do have to find a threat, or cause for alarm, to bring charges. Magee said simply tracking to satisfy curiosity, or to strengthen a divorce case, doesn't necessarily rise to a criminal level, but has led to a number of civil actions.

Neither Joyce's office nor St. Louis police would speak to the topic.


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