Tracking Or Stalking? The Dark Side Of Tracking Apps

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Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated Feb 21, 2024
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Feb 21, 2024

Tracking apps can seem perfectly innocent. Why wouldn’t you want to check on your kid’s journey home from school, or your partner’s commute to work? Unfortunately, GPS tracking isn’t always innocent – it can be a tool for abusers to exert control on their victims. Researchers have revealed the dark side of these apps.

Spyware: When Tracking Apps Become Abusive

A study from tech researchers at Cornell Tech, Cornell University, and New York University titled “The Spyware Used in Intimate Partner Violence”1 reveals the potential pitfalls of tracking. While the researchers noted that “dozens” of overt spyware tools were found on app stores, some tracked not only location, but also harvested texts or recorded video in secret. In fact, a recent report on the study from The New York Times pointed out that some of these app developers know that these apps can be used in stealthy ways, and they’re not afraid to market their apps accordingly.1

“There are definitely app makers that are complicit, seeking out these customers and advertising this use,” said Periwinkle Doerfler, an N.Y.U doctoral student and co-author of the study. The child-tracking app KidGuard, for instance, has “promoted its surveillance for other purposes and run blog posts with headlines like “How to Read Deleted Texts on Your Lover’s Phone,” the Times notes. Apps such as mSpy and Spyzie have also been marketed in similar ways.

Some of the sneakier apps in question require access to a victim’s phone or knowledge of their password. As the Times points out, this knowledge is not uncommon in many relationships. And, to make matters worse, laws on electronic tracking are often hard to enforce, as spying can be tough to prove. And, depending on what state you live in, women’s rights will vary greatly. Read more about the best and worst states for women’s rights.

>> Read More: The Best and Worst States for Women’s Rights.

Are There Any Safe Tracking Apps?

There’s no substitute for trust in a relationship or friendship. If you are interested in tracking a loved one’s location, ask them first. Consent is key. If they do agree, choose an app from a trusted name, like Apple’s Find My Friends for iOS. (This app enables you to stop sharing your location with any user at any time.)

That being said, abusers can leverage control using more innocuous apps, as well. The Times relayed the story of an accused domestic abuser who used Apple’s Find My iPhone, software which tracks the location of Apple devices to find them if they are lost or stolen, to control the movements of his wife. He did so by constantly monitoring her phone’s location and texting or calling her if something had changed. In such an abusive relationship, the same issue could exist with Find My Friends. Basically, although not all tracking apps are inherently abusive, an abusive person can turn any location-sharing app into a tool for further abuse.

How To Maintain Your Privacy

Just because you have a smartphone doesn’t mean that your privacy goes out the window. Here are a few tips to secure your personal data, both on the Internet and in the physical world.

Turn Off Location

Many people don’t realize that by default, their phones monitor their locations through GPS. Many apps also include location tracking, but by adjusting your settings, you can turn location sharing off.

Don’t Share on Social Media

In the same vein, many people don’t think twice before posting about where they are and what they’re doing on social media. However, for a stalker, this could provide them with information that could put you in danger, so either post less information or keep your accounts private.

Password Protect Your Accounts

Like regular hygiene, password hygiene is a must. It means making a password for each of your accounts that is:

  • Long
  • Complicated
  • Not repeated elsewhere

To see if your password is secure enough, use our free password strength checker.

Use Cash

Rather than whipping out your credit card for every transaction, use cash so that you can’t be tracked via your card data.

Don’t Text or Email Sensitive Information

If someone hacks into your phone or steals it outright, you want to make sure that they can’t obtain any of your personally identifiable information. We also recommend protecting your device with a passcode.

Dating safely is essential for your happiness, well-being and safety, and while we can’t choose who you date, we can help you stay as safe as possible with a few best practices.

Use Apple Safety Check

Is your partner tracking your smartphone? iPhone users can lock down their data right away with Safety Check.2 Available for iOS 16 and above, the tool allows you to reset access to all your data with a tap or two. You can also comb through your sharing settings to ensure no one can see where you are or what you’re doing.

  1. The New York Times. (2018). Hundreds of Apps Can Empower Stalkers to Track Their Victims.

  2. Apple. (2023). Use Safety Check on iPhone to stop sharing and secure your account.