Tracking Or Stalking? The Dark Side Of Tracking Apps

Aliza VigdermanGabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Nov 19, 2020

Legitimate tracking apps can have genuinely beneficial uses: they can allow you to see where your child is, for instance. Some spouses also track each other willfully using their phones — they may find this to be more efficient and less bothersome than using texts or calls to update each other on their current locations. But a new study details the dark side of these apps, many of which are “dual-use,” and can be effectively used to spy on a partner unknowingly.

A study from tech researchers at Cornell Tech, Cornell University, and New York University titled “The Spyware Used in Intimate Partner Violence” reveals these potential pitfalls. While the researchers noted that “dozens” of overt spyware tools were found, most of the apps identified are already used to track others. These apps could allow users to track location, yes — but also to harvest texts or secretly record video.

A recent report on the study from The New York Times points out that some of these app developers know these apps can be used in stealthy ways — and they’re not afraid to market their apps to those who wish to monitor and stalk in secret.

“There are definitely app makers that are complicit, seeking out these customers and advertising this use,” said Periwinkle Doerfler, an NYU 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.

A Tricky Situation

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.

These types of apps are available for both Android and iPhone. Laws on electronic tracking are often hard to enforce, as spying can be tough to prove.

There’s no substitute for trust in a relationship: if you are interested in using these apps for purposes that can be mutually beneficial, choose an app from a trusted name — such as Apple’s Find My Friends for iOS. (This app enables you to stop sharing your location with any user at any time.) Talk about these apps with your partner, or your children, before agreeing to use them.

Any Tracking App Presents Potential Problems

The very existence of the more stealthy apps is a problem, as it opens a door to domestic abusers. Unfortunately, abusers can leverage control using more innocuous apps, as well.

The Times relays 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 by constantly monitoring her phone’s location and texting or calling her if something had changed. (In such a relationship, the same issue could exist with Find My Friends.)