They fell for each other in grade school, in the sweetest of ways. In fifth-grade music class, she played saxophone; he played the snare drum. In high school biology, she held the frog while he wielded the scalpel. It was the sort of love story immortalized endlessly in romance novels and Top 40 long-distance dedications. “I thought when I married him it really would be ’till death do us part,’ ” she says now, still surprised that the marriage ended after 19 years. Ultimately, the romance had sputtered to a close, as so many love stories do. Unlike most love stories, though, this ending involved satellites.
One day, six months after she filed for divorce, the woman’s husband, Robert Sullivan, was searching the Internet when he came across an ad for the TravelEyes Tracking Unit, a GPS device that, when installed in
a vehicle and later removed and connected to a computer, shows a digital map of every stop and turn the car has made, and even its speed. A person employing such a device knows as much about the car’s recent whereabouts as he would if he’d been riding in it himself.
Sullivan immediately placed an order; it seems he felt he could put such a contraption to good use.
This all unfolded five years ago in a small Colorado city near Boulder. He was a maintenance worker at a factory. She worked with handicapped students at the nearby university. They were, by her description, just simple people raising two sons and paying their bills, living the sort of anonymous existence politicians exalt when making pronouncements about “the American people.” But among law-enforcement officials and victims’ advocates, their story, and particularly Robert Sullivan’s role, has become notorious. GPS—the Global Positioning System, which pinpoints a user’s location by triangulating radio signals emitted by an array of satellites—was making its journey from military use to civilian ubiquity. At the time, GPS devices were being marketed to track delivery trucks and rental cars; early adopters were carrying them along on wilderness hikes to serve as high-tech breadcrumbs. In a stroke of inspiration, Sullivan co-opted the technology for his own purposes, and in so doing helped to steer stalking into the 21st century.
It was a remarkably undemanding mission. The Internet had made it possible to purchase novel
gadgets of virtually any sort, regardless of where one lived. Sullivan didn’t even install the device himself—he had his kids do the job. He called his wife over to the house, where they talked about the divorce proceedings. Meanwhile their teenage boys, whom Sullivan had convinced were being abandoned by their mother, went outside to “change the oil” in her car. Instead they installed the TravelEyes unit.
“You have the antenna with a plug on it, and you just plug it right into the unit,” Sullivan’s older son would later recall from the witness stand during his father’s trial on stalking charges. “My mom’s car was an Oldsmobile. It had a glove box that . . . popped open, and there is a panel—like a box you could pull out—and that’s how you gained access to the fuse box. So I . . . put some Velcro on the back of this and on the back of the antenna and . . . attached the unit under there, and set the panel back in.”
The device was now activated. “As you can see,” said Sullivan’s son, who was then 19, “it’s pretty simple.”
Four years after Robert Sullivan became America’s first documented GPS-enabled stalker, we are faced with a classic technology dilemma, as perfectly legal and useful devices are turned to less savory ends. GPS units help to track rental cars, Alzheimer’s patients, wandering children, wandering cattle, wandering fur coats. Miniature video cameras monitor babysitters, and keystroke-recording software monitors children’s Internet use. But just as drug dealers appropriated beepers and terrorists the Internet, these technologies and more are being embraced by a new breed of high-tech stalker.
Four out of five stalkers are men, according to a 1999 study published in the American Journal of
Psychiatry. The study sorted stalkers into five categories. “Rejected” stalkers are usually ex-partners motivated by anger over a breakup—people like Sullivan. Three other kinds of stalker are also sexually or romantically motivated but have not dated their victims: “intimacy seekers” fancy themselves in love and want a relationship; “incompetents” are awkwardly seeking a first date; and “predatory” stalkers—perhaps the most dangerous—are planning an assault. Then there are “resentful” stalkers, who aren’t seeking sex or love and want only to make their victims miserable.
Until not long ago, stalkers had to resort to mundane tactics such as driving by their target’s house, stealing phone bills from the trash, or even working for a utility company to access sensitive information. But now, for the cost of a decent dinner, you can buy anyone’s complete address history over the Internet. Aerial photos can be downloaded for the price of cake and a cup of coffee. Technology has given stalkers unparalleled access to what they covet most: information. Type track and spouse into Google, and you get dozens of sites whose links say track and catch your cheating spouse.
Stalking today is not only easier, it’s virtual—which dramatically lessens the chance of getting caught in the act. No longer does the stalker have to sneak out in the middle of the night to check the car’s odometer; the GPS (viewed live on a PDA or cellphone) tells him exactly where the car has been. He doesn’t have to beat people up for e-mail passwords; he can simply install a software program that records every word his victim types, including passwords, log-ins, credit-card numbers and e-mail messages. The camera in the bedroom? It’s hidden in a cheap alarm clock.
Because law-enforcement agencies track stalking crimes without regard to the methods employed, no one knows the precise number of such cases. But reports of high-tech stalking are beginning to stack up. In 2002 a Wisconsin man named Paul Seidler one-upped Sullivan by installing a live GPS system under the hood of his ex-girlfriend’s car. Rather than report her travels after the fact, this unit sent text messages to Seidler’s cellphone revealing her current location. Thus informed, he made a habit of pulling up alongside her car unexpectedly. A rejected California suitor began impersonating in online chat rooms the woman who had spurned him. He described an elaborate rape fantasy, providing the woman’s address and instructions on how to short-
circuit her alarm. It didn’t take long for men to start hounding her. And in New Hampshire, Amy Boyer was the victim of a man who got a fleeting glimpse of her in the eighth grade, became obsessed, and later set up a Web site about her. There he described purchasing personal data (her Social Security number, addresses and so on), noting: “It’s obscene what you can find out about people on the Internet.” The only thing Liam Youens’s Web log didn’t describe was how he shot Boyer and himself to death one afternoon in 1999 after she left work.
The general public has remained largely unaware of the problem. “We don’t have a sense of moral outrage yet,” says Tracy Bahm, director of
the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime. “Many people haven’t heard about this. But when they do, their jaws drop. They cannot believe it exists. And people really don’t know how far gone it is—the hidden cameras in sprinkler heads and smoke detectors. Most people have absolutely no idea what’s possible.”
Until, that is, they get a peculiar feeling—a sense, like the one that crept up on Robert Sullivan’s wife, that someone knows too much about their whereabouts. In early 2000, several weeks after she moved out, her husband started asking questions that were disturbing in their specificity. “Why were you at this place for 30 minutes?” she says he would ask. If she didn’t go to work, he would ask her about it. She found herself constantly looking over her shoulder, but there was never a sign of him.
Eventually, she moved into a new home. “I had just been there half an hour, starting to take the few things I had with me into the duplex, and he came to the door and made some threats,” she recalled during his trial. “I didn’t know that he knew where I was moving to. I had been real cautious, trying to make sure nobody was following me—watching in my rearview mirror, taking alternate routes to get places, going to a different grocery store.”
Petrified, she checked her purse, shoes and jacket pockets to see if he had planted a bug. “Oh my god, what is happening to me?” she thought. “To know somebody knows where you are every second of the day and how many seconds you are at each stoplight and to yet not know how they were able to figure it out—it’s a frightening feeling,” she told the court. “You are always constantly being watched and under surveillance. It gave me stomachaches, it made me not sleep really well. It’s not a comfortable feeling.”
The entrepreneurs who sell spy devices on the Internet are not exactly covert about their intentions. “So many people in this country do not understand that men are not devils. Women do cheat.
People cannot accept that in this country,” says Brad Holmes. So he developed a product called CheckMate, which, for $49.95, makes it possible to test a pair of underwear for drops of semen. The test is a by-product of Holmes’s faith in an almighty commandment: a partner’s right to know. “I’ve always believed that,” he told me. “I do. I really, really do. And now there’s a product for that.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.