Before the tech age, couples would have to put up with a great deal of uncertainty about their partner. Where they were, who they were close to and who they interacted with on a given day was all mysterious unless willingly divulged. Now though, thanks to apps, other technology, and plain old snooping on an unattended phone, it’s possible to eliminate much of this uncertainty.
Now - unless you’ve explicitly disabled these functions - the technology in our back pocket literally tracks our every move. In its default mode, it collects a complex log of our comings and goings that is available to us, and anyone else with access to our phones. And these capabilities are shaping romantic relationships today. A study by YouGov found that 37 percent of millennials spied on their partner’s texts and social media communications at least once a week without their permission, while this proportion fell to 25 percent for the slightly older age group of 35-54 year olds.
Our message and call lists, most recently interacted with on Snapchat, and pictures are available to the prying eyes of those who know our passcodes - except of course, when they don’t reveal the whole truth. Because keeping pace with the evolution of these tracking and logging functions, is technology devoted to obscuring the truth from intruders. In an age where it’s never been easier to keep tabs on someone you’re close to, there are also a range of tools for couples with a minimum level of tech-savviness (i.e. didn’t grow up Mormon), who wish to keep things from one another.
There’s no evidence that cheating has increased in the digital age, even with the advent of dating and hookup apps meaning you are a few taps away from literally thousands of ‘singles in your area’. However, the ways of conducting extracurricular activities have certainly evolved, along with the means of keeping them hidden.
How cheating couples use technology to get away with it
Today, it would be impossible to have an affair without sprinkling a digital breadcrumb trail behind you. Replacing the love letters of yore are furtive texts scattered with kisses, provocative snapchats and midnight calls that leave all too accessible logs behind them. To circumvent the possibilities of getting busted, committed cheaters now have to get a little creative, and turn to tech to help them out.
Now, there are a range of tools on offer to defend against the commonplace spying that is increasingly an element of relationships. A suspicious partner would most definitely check messages, they’d probably check the call log, they might scan most recently interacted with on Snapchat, but one thing they’re unlikely to do is check a calculator app. A grave error, considering this is exactly where one secrecy tool - the Private Photo - enabled you to store reams of private pictures, perhaps of the sort swapped during a steamy exchange. Unlocking the photos required entering a numeric passcode into the calculator app, which would otherwise act as a normal calculator.
When parents discovered how it was being used by their teenage children, the app was pulled from the store, although other incarnations no doubt exist somewhere. However, many options still exist for private albums on the App Store, with one example complete with a log of attempted ‘break-ins’ and a setting that allows you to quickly clear the cache by shaking the phone.
But of course, photos aren’t the only thing covert cheaters need to hide. The CoverMe private text and call app on the App Store boasts of its ability to ensure certain texts and calls never find their way onto on your phone bill. How? The app supplies you with a secret ‘burner’ number which can be used for these exchanges, while the messages self-destruct and secret messages and files can remain hidden. Again, you can shake the phone to hide and lock secret messages at short notice. The takeaway? Beware a phone-shaking spouse.
Fox Private Message offers similar capabilities through its ‘disguised’ app. Once a ‘private’ contact is added, all of their messages and calls will be redirected here instead of the usual apps. While Tiger Text will deliver an ‘out of service’ tone if a sensitive contact tries to ring you at an inconvenient time.
There is also tech that allows a cheating partner to remain on alert for attempted snooping. Nosy Trap is one of these, snapping a picture of anyone attempting to pick up the phone when the phone is left unguarded.
How couples use technology to catch each other out
So, dedicated cheaters now have an array of app-enabled tools at their fingertips, but what about the other side of the equation, the suspicious spouse? Obviously, the internet doesn’t disappoint, serving up plenty of tools to the paranoid partner as well. Naturally, intimate partners generally have access to each others phones, meaning that snooping can - and certainly does - occur.
However, sometimes that’s not enough for the couples suspecting foul play. Today, a number of apps track our location and share it (again, unless we opt out) with others, for example the Find my Friends app on the iPhone, or Snap Maps on Snapchat. But for partners who may be unwilling to share their location, there are other ways.
Simple tracking devices such as GPS trackers aimed at parents of young children up to sophisticated spyware like FlexiSPY and mSpy can be easily and covertly loaded onto a loved one’s phone. The latter category offers software that can variously record calls, mirror the phone’s screen onto a laptop, or even - most creepily - hack the phone’s camera into a spyhole. These can be specifically developed for this purpose (although often disguised as something more harmless) or exploit apps genuinely developed for other uses, such as tracking your child. Most of this spyware requires physical access to the phone, but once downloaded it will sit silently in the background without being detectable.
While some trust-challenged couples use Couple Tracker and mCouple to consensually share all of their data including photos, texts and location with each other, for others, a host of other tech exists. There are also tools such as the iRecovery Stick that restores deleted texts, photos and web history from iPhones, while for spouses worried their significant other is being tempted by dating apps, there is Swipebuster - a website that scans Tinder’s public database to see whether someone has a profile and the last time they used it for a small fee.
Meanwhile, rating high on the ‘laugh or cry’ scale is the Smartress - a mattress that comes pre-packed with inbuilt sensors that can notify one member of a couple about ‘questionable’ activity taking place on the bed.
But what are the consequences of couples employing these tools? “Often, their snooping has a payout,” says sex therapist Jennine Estes. “They find things their partner would not ’fess up to, and my job is to help them process what happened.”
When spying becomes abuse
While some of this technology may seem like a reasonable course of action for a worried partner (particularly those whose spouse is a CoverMe loyal), it can quickly become abusive in the wrong hands. In fact, it’s generally agreed that tracking someone’s movements (and more) without their consent falls into the category of Very Illegal. And this type of tech can often become an important tool in the arsenal of an emotional or domestic abuser.
A Women’s Aid survey discovered that 41 percent of respondents’ partners or exes had used their online activities to track them. And this has become so prevalent in domestic abuse cases that women arriving at shelters in the UK are immediately told to disable their phones, lest their abuser locate them through it.
“For women experiencing domestic violence, these technologies can be used to further terrorise and intimidate them,” says Sandra Horley, the chief executive of Refuge. “Online tools and mobile technologies can provide yet another way for perpetrators to exert power and control over women.”
A recent piece in the New York Times also highlighted the nefarious uses of tech-savvy abusers who have in some cases hijacked an ex-partner’s smart home system with the aim of terrorising them. In their extensive report, they spoke to women whose exes would manipulate the air conditioning, doorbell, and lock systems amongst other things remotely through apps on their phones. This included infuriating instances such as music suddenly blaring from smart speakers or the thermostat being whacked up to 100.
A doctor based in Silicon Valley told the newspaper that her engineer husband, “controls the thermostat. He controls the lights. He controls the music.” She said, “Abusive relationships are about power and control, and he uses technology.”
But although men have been the most documented abusing this technology, a survey from the onlinespyshop.co.uk found that 26 percent of women claimed they ‘just can’t help’ spying on their partner. While a different study found that 58 percent of women claimed to not be able to trust their partner, and 43 percent having spied on them. Conversely, only 21 percent of men sampled claimed not to trust their partners, with 45 percent saying they would ‘never spy on’ them. However, none of the women had downloaded tracking devices or spyware on their other half’s phone, whereas five percent of the male respondents had.
But does the ability to obsessively track a partner’s digital life cause more problems than it fixes? Although some therapists recommend total transparency after a breach in trust such as cheating, these digital interventions can actually have the converse effect of exacerbating trust issues. If the only way you can trust your partner is by tracking them on an app, what happens when the GPS is incorrect, or they don’t have signal or battery? Something that may result from a completely legitimate reason could unnecessarily set off alarm bells.
“The partner can never give comfort and reassurance because the other person’s always going into their phone and saying: ‘What about this, what about that?’” says Estes. “It can drive a huge wedge between relationships.” In the end, a proliferation of high-tech tracking devices will never be an apt replacement for good old fashioned trust.
For more information on how to leave an abusive relationship, how to help a victim of domestic violence, and more, please visit the National Domestic Violence Helpline.