aaronpk/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A lot of people think it’s OK to digitally track their significant other

One Australian study shows how taboo it isn't.

 

Selena Larson

Tech

Published Sep 24, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 10:17 pm CDT

The first time I let someone track my every move was when I went to Las Vegas with a group of girlfriends. We all turned on Find My Friends before we left the hotel in case one of us wound up in some casino we didn’t plan on hitting. After the short vacation, we disabled the app that lets your friends see your precise location, since there was no real reason to know where everyone was once we left Sin City. 

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There are a number of ways friends and partners can track one another  without the person who is being tracked needing to actively share their location. Find My Friends and Facebook Nearby, for instance, can show you friends’ locations thanks to GPS running in the background. When Facebook launched its Nearby feature, it was billed as a way to have serendipitous run-ins with friends in your area, but it was interpreted by many as intrusive and creepy. 

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Using technology to track your partner might not be as taboo as some people think, especially for young people. According to a national survey of 1,923 Australians by VicHealth, a government health organization, almost half of people ages 16 to 24 think it’s okay to track their partner in some manner using mobile devices or computer software. 

The data comes from a survey that takes a look at young Australians’ views on violence against women. A full 46 percent of people think tracking is acceptable to some degree, though 84 percent think electronically tracking a partner without her consent is serious. Men are more inclined to think tracking is OK—52 percent of young men agree, compared to 40 percent of women. 

While some young people might use it to snoop on their partner unscrupulously, it’s becoming more common for couples to use this tech to check in on each other without bugging them via text messages or other alerts. 

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One 24-year-old Toronto woman, who asked that her name not be shared, told The Daily Dot that she and her long-distance boyfriend used a tracking app to monitor and check-in on one another. It was constantly on, and one of the tricks they developed to maintain a strong relationship regardless of the distance. But, she said, they explicitly talked about it, and made sure that if either one felt it was overused or made them feel uncomfortable, they would talk about it.

“It was super helpful for us because it was an easy way to tell ‘hey, did he make it home safely?’, ‘did she land at the airport yet?’ without needing to text,” she said. “It felt less like ‘being okay with tracking my partner’ and more ‘being okay about sharing generally innocuous information with the person I love knowing that it would be helpful.'”

And it’s not just apps or software that people might use to keep tabs on significant others. As connected home devices become more pervasive, they can be used as gadgets to monitor home activities that go beyond pets or security. 

“[My girlfriend] actually set up a [security camera] in the house, which I found creepy as fuck,” Alex Wilhelm, 26, said via Twitter direct message. “She can watch me get ready for work after she leaves … Oddly, perhaps, even though we are tech-focused people, we use incredibly pedestrian tech to stay together [and] in touch. Oh, and I complained about the [camera] so she doesn’t do that.”

Location sharing can benefit families, too.

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Tracking technologies, ranging from potentially intrusive to helpful in social contexts like Facebook and personal relationships, can be seriously harmful in other, more serious scenarios.

An investigative report by NPR found that of more than 70 domestic violence shelters across the U.S., 85 percent of them worked with victims of abuse by people who used GPS and other tech to track and stalk their victims. 

Seventy-five percent say they’re working with victims whose abusers eavesdropped on their conversation remotely — using hidden mobile apps. And nearly half the shelters we surveyed have a policy against using Facebook on premises, because they are concerned a stalker can pinpoint location.

Crisis shelters have to battle location tracking and mapping technologies in order to keep residents and victims safe. Earlier this year, thousands of people petitioned Google to remove domestic violence shelters from its Maps product—abusers could look up locations of where their victims might be with a simple Google search. 

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Tracking can be seen as abusive behavior, especially when enforced without the consent of the partner, but oftentimes location sharing is a fundamental piece of budding relationships.

Dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, and Happn use your location to serve up potential matches, meaning complete strangers know where you are before they find out anything more about you. With over 20 percent of U.S. adults aged 25 to 34 using online dating, the laissez-faire attitude to location privacy in the beginning of a relationship means eventually many people will have tracked or found a partner based on the drop of a pin. 

VicHealth’s study, though important for educating people on violence against women, also highlights the pervasive and acceptable role location-sharing plays in young people’s lives. With more people willing to do things like implant a chip inside their brain to access the Internet, keeping tabs on our partners via mobile devices doesn’t seem as invasive as it might have just a few years ago. 

However, it’s important to make sure your partner knows you’re tracking them—and that they’re okay with it first. 

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Photo via aaronpk/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 24, 2015, 4:17 pm CDT