Many products, in fact. Holmes, who recently went through a divorce of his own, has turned his company into a sort of 7-Eleven for jealous mates. Besides the semen kit, he sells listening devices, GPS trackers and spy cameras. Customers—some 15 percent of whom are women—often buy all the products at once. In an apparent effort to capitalize on a need he has helped create, Holmes also offers a full slate of countermeasures—devices that can detect spy cameras and bugs, should someone become suspicious that covert products are being used on them.
Holmes’s is one of dozens of such Internet businesses. Greg Shields owns a company in Cincinnati called Track & Spy. Business is brisk, he says; he claims to log $2,000 in sales per day, working just an hour or so. “I go to the gym a lot, play racquetball, go shopping. When I’m not in the office, my calls forward to my cellphone. I’ve sold GPS devices while sitting on the beach. This is kind of like being retired. Sometimes you get bored, but it’s better than working.” When I reached him on the phone, he seemed to be in a grocery store.
Shields sells clock radios that were purchased from Wal-Mart, then reengineered by his distributor to surreptitiously enclose a video camera. On his Web site he describes the product, which sells for $379, as a “nanny cam” but adds that “suspicions of infidelity or extramarital affairs can be verified” and that “this unit does extremely well in normal low bedroom lighting environments.” The tinted plastic on the front of the clock is dark enough to conceal the hidden camera, the promotional text promises, yet transparent enough for the camera to capture clear images. Nor is it possible to detect any of the tinkering that turned a cheap clock into a Trojan horse: “There are no extraneous cables . . . [just] the exact same AC power cable that the manufacturer of this AM/FM alarm clock radio supplied.”
Shields also sells a $495 GPS tracking device similar to the one Sullivan used, and, for $1,199, the higher-tech, wireless version—the kind Paul Seidler
employed, which allows its owner to follow the whereabouts of a car in real time without having to physically retrieve the device and download its data.
I asked Shields whether he thought his customers could get in trouble for using GPS to harass someone. He said he tells people that if they own the vehicle on which they install it, they’re in the clear. “It’s the rule of thumb,” he said. I asked him whether he thought selling these products was a good idea, given that people are now using them for stalking. “I’m not liable for the way someone else uses my products,” he said. “People can sell beer, and, depending what the customer does with it, that could be harmful too, right?”
Among the potentially harmful products on the
market are digital voice changers, which disguise the caller’s voice; Maxwell Smart
watches; advocates are concerned that they’ll soon be embedded in any number of products. Also worrisome: In September a company called Star38 announced a Caller ID
Less obtrusively, a person can install Spector Pro 5.0, software that records on the computer’s hard drive every keystroke typed. If the spy doesn’t have frequent access to the computer he wants to monitor, he can get eBlaster 5.0, which sends reports over e-mail. Both programs offer stealth mode, in which they reveal no trace of their existence. Some spy software programs even have remote-installation capabilities: They can be sent as an e-mail attachment to the person the user wants to monitor, and will install themselves if clicked on. A spokesperson for SpectorSoft, which makes Spector Pro and eBlaster, says the programs are useful for parents who want to keep an eye on kids’ computer use, but the company’s Web site is full of testimonials like this one, from “Bill”: “I found out EXACTLY what my EX-fianc was doing. Notice I said EX?”
Gadgets don’t turn people into stalkers, but they do enable them to get information more
quickly, potentially accelerating dangerous behavior. “On the night of February 15th, when I left the house, he followed me out,” Sullivan’s wife told the court. “He told me if I don’t dismiss the divorce case that he is going to burn all my clothes, that they were all piled in the backyard and he had gas back there. And he was yelling at me when I left. I drove away, and he called me on my cellphone about five minutes later. There were sirens on the phone when I was talking to him, and he said the fire department was on the way, that all my clothes were burning.”
Sullivan was soon calling his wife obsessively—13 or 14 times a day—asking her to drop the divorce proceedings. Come back home. Come home. Once, she says, when Sullivan had her on the line, he walked over to a paper shredder and inserted her diploma. The message, say victims’ advocates, is simple: If I can shred your diploma, I can shred you.
Sullivan’s wife went to the police. While she was there, he called her cellphone. A police officer picked up and asked Sullivan to stop by. He did, and at some point he told the officer that he had installed the GPS device. Echoing Greg Shields’s “rule of thumb,” Sullivan insisted that it was legal because he owned the car. The reality is that installing the device was technically legal, but the way he used it to harass his wife was not. The police charged him with stalking.
His trial began one Friday in October 2000, before Judge James H. Hiatt. It was a surreal affair that demonstrated the divide between a
tradition-bound legal system and the world of affordable high-tech gadgetry that is available to aid criminal behavior. During opening arguments, the prosecutor struggled to explain the facts of the case: “The defendant purchased a tracking device, a global—it’s called
a GPS—global positions satellite tracking device is that—what that stands for,” he faltered.
The legal system has had to scramble to keep up with the technology being adopted by stalkers. Almost every state has passed a cyberstalking law, but most deal mainly with electronic communications and not surveillance technologies such as miniature cameras and GPS devices. And most of the laws still rely on the traditional definition of stalking, in which the pattern of behavior is only a crime if the victim is aware of it and feels threatened. But technology adds previously unimagined new twists to the ways in which a person’s privacy and peace of mind can be violated.
Judge Hiatt found Sullivan guilty. “Of all the people in the world,” he wrote of Sullivan in his decision, “this was the last person that Ms. Sullivan wanted to have this kind of knowledge, and I would think it would be a frightening experience to know that he knows all this stuff and to not know how or why he knows it. That would be serious emotional distress to any reasonable person.”
Sullivan appealed. He argued that his wife wasn’t under active surveillance because he didn’t know her whereabouts until after he had downloaded information from the GPS unit. The appeals court responded, essentially: Bunk. The court interpreted “under
surveillance” to include “electronic surveillance that records a person’s whereabouts as that person moves from one location to another and allows the
stalker to access that information either simultaneously or shortly thereafter.”
Victims’ advocates such as Tracy Bahm are lobbying for more states to adopt that definition and to follow the example of Wisconsin, where anti-stalking legislation that went into effect in April expands the banned activities to include “photographing, videotaping, audiotaping, or, through any other electronic means, monitoring or recording the activities of the victim.” Also, instead of having to make the case that the victim had a reasonable fear of injury or death, the new Wisconsin statute, like Colorado’s, requires only that prosecutors prove that the stalking caused someone “to suffer serious emotional distress.”Bahm is helping draft a prototype anti-stalking law to serve as a model for legislators around the country. The goal is to find language that’s flexible enough to anticipate the misuse of technologies that don’t yet exist. “It should cover all forms of stalking we can contemplate—direct and indirect,” she says, “and be written in a way that anticipates that there will be technology in the future that we can’t contemplate now, and we should not have to amend our laws every year to address the new technology.”
Sullivan received a three-year suspended sentence—he served 57 days in jail and then was put on probation for four years. It was a wrist slap typical of domestic violence cases. “You can go to jail for doing drugs but not for stalking your wife,” says Cindy Southworth of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, an organization representing state domestic-violence groups. But Sullivan violated his probation by using drugs and possessing a gun and is now in prison little more than an hour’s drive from the home of his ex-wife and her new husband. He’ll be out as early as this summer. For now, he communicates indirectly with his ex-wife in any way possible, including by filing lawsuits against her so that she’ll be served with papers bearing his name.
“I get messages from him through my sons, through their girlfriends,” she says. “He claims he’s made me what I am, that I owe him. He tells my sons everything would be fine if I just came back home. The last thing he said to me was that he’d ruin me. Now he’ll forgive me for everything I’ve done. He says I need to keep the family together. He’s never going to let this go.”
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.