Houston woman discovers husband she's seeking divorce from was tracking her with new technology

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When a woman first heard a faint chirping sound, she thought it was coming from a toy her child had left behind in the car. The next day, she noticed a concerning message on her iPhone.

"(It said) that there was something traveling with me," the woman said describing the message she got.

Soon, this Houston woman, who doesn't want ABC13 to identify her because her divorce is not yet finalized, realized she was being tracked.

"Before I heard the chirp, I knew what an Airtag was. I was not familiar with it being used in that way, so I did not expect it," she said.

The woman first shared her story with the Houston Chronicle, and is now sharing it with ABC13 because she wants people to realize just how serious the problem could become.

Stalking people is not a new crime, however, recent advances in technology, including trackers like Tile and Airtag, make it cheaper and easier than ever to follow people without their knowledge.

"All those technologies, they don't know whether they're being used to help you find your stolen bike or help you stalk your ex," said Dr. Dan Wallach, a professor of computer science at Rice University specializing in electronic security issues.

Wallach explained that the Apple Airtag relies on Bluetooth technology, in addition to the Find My iPhone app from an individual's iPhone to pin point its location. That means all iPhones near a particular Airtag are actively helping to locate that tag, making it very accurate for geo-location. The tags are cheap, light, and since iPhones are basically everywhere, they're great at tracking your stuff.

SEE RELATED STORY: Reports claim Apple AirTag electronic tracking device used in stalking, theft: What to know

"If you've lost something like your bike, it can help you find it," said Wallach. "That's really great, but the same technology, if I am stalking my ex, I could hide it in their bag or purse or whatever. And then I can say, 'Where's my ex?'"

That's exactly what happened in this woman's case. She was going through a divorce and said her not-quite ex-husband hid the tracker in the back seat of her car. Once she discovered it, she sent all pictures, screenshots, and other information to her lawyer. Then, she confronted her husband.

"At first he denied that he had done it, and then he was very apologetic and, and kind of came clean," she said.

In her case, the stalking behavior wasn't a crime.

"In Texas, we're a community property state," explained Matt Tyson, a family law attorney who has dealt with tracking devices with some of his clients.

Tyson pointed out that because the tracking device was in a car jointly owned by the husband and wife, and Texas is a community property state, the tracking of the car was not a crime.

"So what that means is, the husband or the wife is going have the same interest in that vehicle. If we're talking about a vehicle, they can track that," said Tyson.

Tyson said stalking cases using various tracking devices are notoriously difficult to prove in court in domestic situations. While it's clearly illegal to track a total stranger, the law is murkier when trackers are used by people who are married, in a relationship, own property together, or share children.

"I had one case where somebody put a tag on their child's backpack. And so, the backpack was able to show when the other parent was with the child. (But) they used it really to track the other parent. That was not a crime," said Tyson.

"It would be nice if regulators could be ahead of the game, but that's just not the way regulation works," said Wallach, who would like to see laws passed that would make prosecuting people who use tracking devices easier.

ABC13 checked all stalking cases filed in Harris County over the past 18 months. Only a handful of the criminal cases involved tracking devices, and none used Airtags. We also called a number of area police agencies and several smaller law enforcement groups were not even aware of the new technology.

"The law is always evolving, but unfortunately technology evolves much, much faster. So the law's trying to catch up with technology that has really just taken off," said Tyson.

"So how do we balance theft prevention with stalker prevention?" asks Wallach. "I would say that there's a balance in there somewhere, but I'm not sure what it is."

For now, it is incumbent upon all of us, to be aware of the new technology that's around every turn.

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