Partner "spy" apps make it easy to snoop, but should you?

We can't go on together, with suspicious minds.
It's becoming easier - and more common - for people to spy on a significant other. (Melinna Miranda)

Smartphones help us keep track of our lives, but they can also be used to keep track of us. A range of partner "spy" apps can run undetected on a spouse's smartphone, gathering data on everything from web browsing to messaging history to real-time location data. Karen Levy is a sociologist who recently published a paper on Intimate Surveillance -- how people are monitoring their partners and what the consequences are.

Apps are just one way spouses monitor each other, Levy says. Practices also include "checking someone's search history on Google…In the home, if you're living with someone, there's just a plethora of video surveillance systems."

Technologies like secret 'spy' apps can be used in abusive or controlling relationships, but covertly monitoring a partner's digital breadcrumbs happens much more broadly, in relationships where one partner suspects infidelity.

Couples counsellor and family mediator, Jane Walsh, sees this kind of monitoring behaviour in her practice. "The most common thing is for people to check the texts on a spouse's cellphone," Walsh explains. "Almost all the divorced couples I work with, texts have been the reason the divorce happened. The discovery was through text." Partners may be alerted to a possible affair by a change in a spouse's use of social media. "People notice someone's become friends with someone, there are too many likes, too many intersections of their lives."

Listen to Nora's interview with Jane here:

For sociologist Karen Levy, it's part of an overall trend towards digital monitoring. She says it's considered "social due diligence" to do things like check out someone's digital presence before going on a date.

What's new here is that surveillance, in a lot of contexts, is just becoming a lot more normative and is considered caring for someone.- Karen Levy

Karen points out that sometimes keeping tabs on someone can be innocuous, or beneficial. "The whole idea behind Apple's Find My Friends [app] is that you know where important people in your life are because you want to see them or because it helps you plan your life better."

Ultimately, counsellor Jane Walsh recommends opening up the lines of communication. "Talk to your partner…and telling the person, 'you know I'm really worried that you're having an affair'. I would love for people to lead with that instead of going into someone's cellphone."