While apps with tracking capabilities have good intentions, abusers have been known to use the apps to keep tabs on their spouses or significant others. The apps are meant to help you find your phone if it's lost or help you monitor your child's behavior online or know where they are.
Vice News reports spyware software that allows the user to track calls, location, text messages, and other phone activity is easy to download and sometimes free. Domestic violence shelters report that victims are discovering their abusive partners secretly installed surveillance software or apps on their phones.
"What we assume is that everything is tracked," Liz Ortenberger, who runs SafeNest, a Las Vegas domestic violence shelter, told Vice. SafeNest provides counseling and other services to 45,000 abuse victims a year.
The apps don't have to be secretive, though. People in abusive relationships or households may share a child. Sometimes parents may install an app to help monitor their children on their personal smartphone and their child's smartphone, Vice reported.
Most of the apps just track location. Others, however, go deeper, showing parents call logs, text messages, websites visited, and more. An abusive partner could easily track a victim's activity with one of these apps meant for families.
Sometimes these family apps are marketed more nefariously. The New York Times reported in May that the app KidGuard promoted its capabilities with a blog post called "How to Read Deleted Texts on Your Lover's Phone." Apps like mSpy and Spyzie have run ads suggesting they can help spouses monitor each other or catch the other cheating.
Generally, these tracking apps are available in app stores and are honest about what they do. Trouble could arise if an app is marketed as something else but has secret spyware tracking capabilities. Usually these apps aren't available through app stores, but Android allows for third-party installs through a process called sideloading. This can put people at a much higher risk because the source of the software is unknown. Google has tightened its policies in the Play Store and stopped allowing abuse-related advertisement, but there are still risks.
Keeping known abusers from digitally tracking their spouses is tricky. Laws struggle to regulate technology because it's always changing. Monitoring a spouse or partner can violate the federal wiretapping statutes, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, and federal stalking statutes.
Last year the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reported that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 7 men were victims in some form of physical violence from a partner in their lifetime. The NCADV also reported that 1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner in their lives, believing someone close to them would be hurt or killed as a result.
Domestic violence is a serious matter and victims should never be blamed. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) offers information on finding spyware on your phone if you think your partner or spouse has installed it.
The NDVH says spyware can be difficult to detect, but points to a few signs that you're being monitored:
- Your partner knows your whereabouts even if you haven't told them where you've been
- Your partner knows your online search history even if you deleted it
- Your partner knows about conversations or messages you've sent to other people
- Your partner questions you about topics you've personally researched but haven't talked about
- Your smartphone battery drains quickly
- Your data usage spikes
The NDVH says not to get rid of your device if you suspect you're being monitored. The Hotline also says to not stop using it all together, but do basic tasks like looking up the weather.
"Do not use a computer or cell phone that your partner has access to in order to research shelters, escape plans, or to call/chat with hotlines. Use a computer at a library, at a friend's house or at work, or borrow a friend's cell phone or work phone to make calls," NDVH said.
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- Using apps meant to keep tabs on kids or help locate a smartphone, abusive partners can digitally monitor their partners or spouses.
- Some child-tracking apps are marketed negatively as spyware to catch a cheating partner. Domestic Hotlines give clues to know if a device is being monitored.
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