TRENTON – On Thursday, Senator Nia H. Gill introduced legislation to ban the use of the so-called "stalking" or spyware apps that would allow users to secretly monitor text messages, emails and phone calls and to track the location of cell phone users without their knowledge.
“The use of ‘stalking apps’ not only violates the cell phone owner’s privacy but can also be used to monitor the activities of an unsuspecting person by someone who is intent on inflicting physical or emotional harm,” said Gill (D-Essex/Passaic).
“These programs have already proven dangerous to victims of domestic violence whose whereabouts have been tracked by their abusers. They can also be used to eavesdrop on phone conversations and to access confidential information stored on a victim’s personal phone. This technology should not be available for use by the general public without the explicit permission of those whose communications are being monitored,” Gill added.
Often marketed to individuals who are concerned a partner may be unfaithful, the bill would amend the state’s wiretap laws to make the installation and use of these programs unlawful unless consent is given. If passed, the law would also prohibit the use of monitoring programs unless all parties to a communication gave prior consent – meaning everyone who sends communications to or through the cell phone (phone calls, texts, emails) would also need to consent to allow these communications to be subject to monitoring.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence have expressed concerns that spyware apps places victims in an uncomfortable situation with their abusers. When trying to get away, abusers have been known to track down their victims, in some cases.
“This amounts to a modern method of phone tapping, but is far more dangerous. These apps allow a user to secretly monitor personal text messages, phone calls and emails and to track the location of someone without their knowledge,” Gill said. “While they are often marketed as harmless applications that can be used to catch a cheating spouse, they are tools that can be used by perpetrators to stalk and prey upon their victims and cause severe and lasting harm. This bill will outlaw monitoring through these cell phone applications in the way they are commonly used.”
A violation of the bill would be a third-degree crime, punishable by three to five years in prison, a fine of up to $15,000, or both. A violation would also subject the wrongdoer to a civil cause of action, being liable for any damages to an aggrieved party (but not less than liquidated damages computed at the rate of $100/day for each day of violation, or $1,000, whichever is greater) punitive damages and reasonable attorney’s fees and other litigation costs.