The worrying ways that people use technology to monitor their current or former intimate partners — and the manipulative justifications they give and support they receive from online forums — have been outlined by academics.
Two analyses of the behavior of abusers who use surveillance to track their intimate partners show the range of methods people use to keep tabs on those they suspect of cheating or those they want control over. The researchers analyzed posts on popular forums and discussion boards relating to surveillance of partners, uncovering the extent to which some people go to track others.
“Some of the methods are quite chilling... just how calculated they are,” explains Rosanna Bellini, a researcher at Newcastle University’s Open Lab, and co-author of both academic papers, which outline the means and methods people use to monitor partners. Those tracking loved ones use everything from installing keyloggers on partners’ cell phones to putting GPS trackers in their bags or on their cars. Others utilized audio-visual recorders to try and catch their partner saying incriminating things to others about whether they were cheating. Even wilder, some hacked into their target's cloud services to download messages.
Doing any of that is concerning and massively damaging to the victim of surveillance. “The impacts of intimate partner surveillance are in line with the negative side effects of intimate partner violence,” says Bellini. It can affect their mental health and cause people to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet too many of us do it.
“Some of the methods are quite chilling.”
A recent survey by Norton indicated nearly half of Americans admit to cyberstalking a current or former partner, with one in three reading through their partner’s cell phone, and one in 10 downloading surveillance apps specifically designed to monitor partners’ data. While women do also monitor their partners, men are 2.5 times more likely to do so.
At their most extreme, some abusers claimed to be using router monitoring tools that tracked all internet activity coming into and out of a home in order to identify whether something was amiss. “We were quite surprised that someone was as technical as that on these kinds of forums,” Bellini said. Others also used catfishing to coerce partners into giving up access to their personal data, or hiring private investigators.
Worryingly such forums are highly active places: thousands of users take part in discussions around intimate partner surveillance (IPS), with new posts on one particularly popular forum popping up every 15 minutes. “There was a thriving community with lots of people talking about tools and tactics,” Bellini says.
Digging into the posts themselves revealed the concerning ways people engaged in tracking their partners without their knowledge tried to justify their actions.
Thousands of users take part in discussions around intimate partner surveillance.
“Recently my wife has started to become more social with her co-workers,” wrote one poster, by way of vindicating why he wanted to gain access to her phone, bypassing her password input screen. “She’s in a job where she works with a lot of men. Over the years she’s lied consistently about our finances, but lately, she’s also been lying about who she’s out drinking with.”
That attitude is consistent with the 44% of Americans who admit to monitoring their partner’s behavior justifying it by saying they didn’t trust them. A further 38% claimed they were “just curious” about who their partners were talking to online. Another forum participant said “I waited until he left the room and checked his voicemail. Nothing there. There are definitely things missing in his call log. I think he’s deleting them.”
Another user created a 19-page portfolio of evidence he presented to his partner that she had cheated on him – “concrete proof,” he claimed. “The bitch says all the texts weren’t hers and they were just fake ones that I’d written with my spyware ... She avoided me for weeks, denying everything, until slowly with the help of this site I was able to piece together the truth.”
In all, two in three 18-to-34-year-olds say they’ve engaged in online stalking of a partner.
Bellini believes the existence of forums like this have helped make unacceptable behavior seem more acceptable. “The ability to tap into a network of people that are extremely willing to help you and normalize and validate your behavior is concerning,” she says. “Quite a lot of perpetrators might not want to disclose their use of domestic violence [like monitoring partners] within their social circles.
“But what the internet provides is a kind of, inverted commas ‘safe space’, where it gives the appearance of distance from their situation, and for them to be able to tap into lots of other people who you find are also going through these kinds of experiences,” she says. “It normalizes the desire you might have towards controlling, coercing, or stalking your partner, and makes it seem kind of commonplace in a way I think might not have been the case beforehand.”
“It normalizes the desire you might have towards controlling, coercing, or stalking your partner.”
A society-wide increase in surveillance of the general population has also made behaviors that should seem concerning appear more normal. “The commercialization of the surveillance of other people or employees has definitely had an impact,” explains Bellini, who is currently investigating the ease of access to high-powered surveillance tools through online search as part of a future investigative project. She worries that the ability to easily get such tools is helping push people who might think twice about moving from suspicion about a partner to actually monitoring them into doing so. Removing the friction in the process means people think less about the consequences of their actions.
It also makes digital surveillance seem like a normal part of maintaining a relationship, and keeping trust with partners.
“We saw that people went from saying their partner’s behavior is suspicious, or they’re not quite sure about this, to thinking about strategies and going ahead with what they were thinking about very quickly,” she says. Getting egged on by those also knowledgeable in the field and with prior experience doesn’t help. “People are reporting tips and tricks for how other people can perform [surveillance] better,” Bellini adds.
One user cautioned his peers that “you won’t find what you’re after straight away.” Adding that on should “[c]ontinue to convince them that leaving the house is a good idea, after work drinks ... that kind of thing,” they wrote. “Then go through e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g digital: laptops, old phones she doesn’t use any more, whatever you can lay your hands on. Slow, methodical snooping is best to avoid her suspecting anything, but believe me, you WILL find something juicy if you keep at it.”
“People are reporting tips and tricks for how other people can perform [surveillance] better.”
There’s little evidence that those who have engaged in intimate partner surveillance feel remorse for their actions, or feel like they may have overstepped the boundaries. Bellini and her colleagues developed a four-stage model that they say maps how most people end up surveilling their partners. Suspicions are raised when the partner doesn’t meet a person’s “agreed” behaviors, which triggers a change in attitude or thinking towards them. They then gather evidence of misgivings through surveillance and reflect on what they’re doing.
“I’m fighting the urge to be one of those controlling guys that goes through her phone at night,” wrote one forum user. “I did it every night while she was sleeping and I had to stop myself because I was making myself crazy. I’d fantasize about putting GPS in her car. Wish I could keep her in a bubble where no guys could ever talk to her. These thoughts are crazy, but I just can’t help myself.”
Tackling an issue that has become seemingly so prevalent is difficult, but Bellini and her colleagues think it’s incumbent on all of us to help solve the problem. “We need to get to the core underlying issue, which is why they have this desire to kind of control their partner's behavior,” she says.
Facing up to the fact that you have a problem is the first step to tackling it. “Irrational or obsessive surveillance, jealousy or control of a partner is destructive for relationships and also ultimately self-defeating for the person using it,” explains Bellini. “Surveillance of a partner turns someone into a person they don't want to be, as engaging in activities that are harmful, dangerous, and in some places illegal often damages their integrity and the respect they have for themselves.” It’s also destructive to relationships. “It’s hard for a partner to trust someone who has violated their privacy,” she adds.
“We need to get to the core underlying issue, which is why they have this desire to kind of control their partner's behavior.”
That can be done through education and counseling, but online service providers also need to take action to try and dissuade people from taking the first step in tracking their partners.
“There are particular things on the web, which shouldn't be on the web, because they don't have any other legitimate use other than stalking or controlling your partner,” she says. ISPs could flash up warnings, similar to those who search for images of child abuse or for illegally pirated content online, that reminds people of the illegality of snooping on a partner’s digital data, and offering them links to get support for the underlying issue causing them to worry about their partner cheating in the first place. “Can we equip online service providers with spotting this kind of content and challenging it when it does occur?” she asks.
If you are experiencing intimate partner violence or abuse, please reach out to TheHotline.org. To benefit the victims of domestic abuse, we recommend donating to TheHotline.org, Day One, and Futures Without Violence.