Image courtesy of clipart.com
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.