An abuser may misuse GPS technology to try to gain or keep control over you.
What is GPS monitoring?
A Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of satellites that provides location information to many common devices such as smartphones, car navigation systems, and laptop computers. The satellite information allows these devices to be located on a map. There are many different types of devices that use GPS technology and GPS can be extremely useful for tasks like finding nearby establishments or getting directions to an unknown location. For all of the positive uses of GPS, the expanded use of GPS-enabled devices has also increased the inappropriate use of technology to monitor or track a person’s location.
GPS monitoring can also lawfully be used in many ways – for example, a parent may monitor the whereabouts of a minor child or a judge may order that someone on probation be monitored through a GPS device. However, as GPS technology has become cheaper and more advanced, small and easily hidden devices can include GPS technology and make it harder to know which devices have tracking capabilities, enabling abusers to misuse the technology to track your location. For example, nearly all cellphones now have GPS technology that could be misused by an abuser to gain access to information about where you are and where you have been.
How can an abuser misuse GPS technology?
Because domestic violence is about one person seeking power and control over another person, an abuser may misuse GPS technology to try to gain or keep control over you. For example, an abuser could use GPS to learn where you have been, and then misuse this information against you. Because GPS-enabled devices can be so small and easily hidden, an abuser could hide a device in your belongings or car. The GPS in your phone could also be used to track you. Your location information through the GPS in your phone is not automatically available to another person, but there are a variety of ways that an abuser could get that information. Some examples of how that information could be accessed is if an abuser shares a cell phone plan with you, if s/he can access your cell phone account, or if s/he has another way of accessing your information, such as through spyware, downloaded apps, or when your devices are synced to the “cloud” or your computer. An abuser may use this technology as a way to stalk you or to maintain power and control over you by not allowing you to have any privacy or autonomy.
What laws can protect me from GPS monitoring?
Some states may have laws that specifically protect you from having a tracking device installed on your property without your consent. If the abuser tampered with your personal technology devices (e.g., cell phone, tablet, etc.), there may also be state laws that protect you, such as interference or tampering with an electronic communications device. Depending on the language of your state’s laws, stalking, harassment, or cyberstalking laws may protect you from this behavior as well. You can read our Stalking/Cyberstalking page for more information. Additionally, electronic surveillance laws may also apply to a situation where an abuser is monitoring or tracking you. Many of these laws are not specifically focused on domestic violence, so when speaking to the police, an advocate, or an attorney, it may be a good idea to suggest that they look at the computer crimes or privacy laws within your state.
What can I do to stay safe or prevent the mis-use of a GPS-enabled device?
If an abuser seems to know too much information about where you have been or shows up in random locations that you did not share that you would be at, you may consider checking your belongings or car for hidden GPS-enabled devices. GPS can be included on a number of different types of devices, so you may need to look for something that you do not recognize or something that is out of the ordinary. A device will generally need a power source, so if a person has not had access to your belongings for a substantial period of time, you may want to see if there is a device that is connected to a power source like your car battery or under your dashboard. You may be able to get help from a professional to search your belongings. If you find something, an attorney, advocate, or law enforcement can help you determine what the device is and what to do with it. You can also find out a lot of information about a device if you do an online search with a description of the device that you found.
In addition to looking for unknown devices, it is also important to consider whether GPS is currently enabled on the devices that you already own. Devices to consider, include but are not limited to, your phone, your computer, a “wearable” device like a smart watch, and devices used by people close to you, like your children. Many “apps” and programs on your devices are GPS-enabled and could possibly send information to a person who intends to misuse that information. If you have any questions, a professional can help or you could try an online search with the words “how to turn off GPS on my [insert device name].” More information about phone safety can be found at limit location access on your smart phone.
You may also consider keeping a log of incidents related to the tracking so that you have evidence of a pattern or history to share with a lawyer or law enforcement.
GPS monitoring can be particularly dangerous if you are attempting to safely leave an abusive relationship since the abuser would be able to locate you. However, if you find a GPS device in your property, it can be important to safety plan with an advocate before removing any type of tracking device since removing the device may alert the abuser that you have found it. You may consider calling a domestic violence program from a public or third party’s telephone to safety plan if the abuser is tracking your location or monitoring your telephone.
Safety Net, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, also has information on how you can limit location access on your smart phone and tips for staying safe if an abuser is using technology to monitor you.