High-tech bloodhounds unleashed

by Luke Ulatowski
For The Beacon

While the advancement of global positioning system (GPS) technology is a major source of convenience, it is also a cause for concern.

In March 2019, James Muns of La Crosse was arrested under several charges for allegedly stalking and harassing a woman. These charges include two counts of misuse of a GPS device: “place without consent” and “obtain information.” A GPS tracker was found on the victim’s car, where it had allegedly been placed without her knowledge.

The ongoing La Crosse case is the most recent of several cases involving GPS tracking in Wisconsin. In 2015, Wis. Stats. 940.315 was enacted, criminalizing GPS misuse. The law states that placing “a global positioning device or a device equipped with global positioning technology on a vehicle owned or leased by another person without that person’s consent” is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to nine months in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

The law explicitly exempts parents tracking their underage children and any employee “acting within the scope of his or her employment.”

The law has not come into prominent play in Sheboygan County. Sheriff Cory Roeseler, Sheboygan Chief of Police Christopher Domagalski and Plymouth Deputy Chief of Police Christopher Ringel all reported that their departments have not been involved in any GPS stalking cases in recent memory. “I think we may have had complaints for things like stalking or harassment, where that has been suspected by the victim, but not necessarily confirmed,” Ringel said.

Despite the lack of cases, Roeseler finds it wise to be aware of the possibility. “I am sure these types of cases will only increase with the advancement of technology,” Roeseler said. “There are so many ways to monitor activity via new technology over recent years. OnStar, parental controls and tracking, cell phone GPS tracking along with so many others. The cost of some of these has become so low that it makes it so accessible now.”

GPS trackers are legal for average citizens to purchase. Companies like SpyTec offer customers both trackers and smartphone apps that the trackers can send their location to. The STI GL300 Real-Time GPS Tracker, standing at 2 inches tall, is sold alone online for $50 and with a magnetic case for $75. SpyTec also offers the product in its “Cheating Spouse Standard Kit” alongside a flash drive voice recorder and a minicamera disguised as a fully-functional USB wall charger.

Roeseler offered advice that could prevent someone from becoming a victim. “The best advice I can give is just being aware of what is going on,” he said. “Having a trusted mechanic who looks for unusual things on your vehicle. The thing to remember is that most of the trackers run on some type of battery that will need to be changed. So someone would have to have contact again with the vehicle to change out batteries in most cases. So making your vehicle less accessible–garage, gated area or in well-lit public areas–would make it harder for someone to place the device on a vehicle.”

A common hiding place for a GPS tracker is inside a wheel well. GPS trackers made for sticking to cars are usually magnetic or have magnetic add-ons. Police in populous cities including Milwaukee have utilized magnetic GPS bullets that can be shot onto a fleeing suspect’s car

Ringel noted that one does not necessarily need a GPS tracker placed on their car without consent to become a victim of GPS stalking. In-car location services can also be manipulated.

“Many new vehicles come with wi-fi and satellite services such as OnStar, which allows you to check up on your vehicle,” Ringel said. “But if you have a generic password that’s easy to figure out, or you have shared it, it makes it easy for others to potentially gain access to your vehicle’s accessories. One of those may be your vehicle’s onboard GPS location which could give away where you live, work and places you frequent.”

OnStar is a subscription service from General Motors. GPS-based features include turn-by-turn navigation and “stolen car assistance,” the latter of which allows OnStar employees to locate a stolen vehicle and, “in some cases,” remotely slow down the vehicle and block its ignition.

Abuse aside, benevolent use of GPS technology is widespread. The Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Department’s Electronic Monitoring Program (EMP) utilizes technology from the Colorado-based BI Inc. Its ExacuTrack One ankle bracelet takes advantage of GPS tracking to alert the authorities if an offender enters an area designated “restricted.”

GPS technology is now utilized by Sheboygan bus service Shoreline Metro for its Bus Tracker App, which uses software from UniteGPS. Director of Transit & Parking Derek Muench demonstrated the app to the Common Council at a meeting on April 3.

According to Muench, Shoreline has installed a GPS tracker into each metro unit. Every five seconds, a tracker will send out a signal showing its location in real time, which Muench clarified is “within three seconds.” On the app, locations will be displayed on a map with details down to property and house addresses. Muench included a disclaimer that driver information would not be displayed.

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