From disgruntled teenagers to cheating partners: is the mobile GPS trend going too far?

Are tracking apps on your phone that help you to find your friends and loved ones simply peace of mind, or intrusive?

W0W8X1 figurine of the child stands near a huge red pointer. tracking the location of the child in real time, parental control. Ensuring safety, discipline. Alamy
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It's perfectly normal to wonder where people are and what they're doing, whether it's a wistful thought about a friend travelling far from home, or a surge of panic when a partner is two hours late. Thanks to GPS technology, their locations need not be a mystery, but the apps that enable us to track the movements of our nearest and dearest can open a Pandora's box of paranoia and mistrust.

They can also be very ­useful. One popular app, Life360, has the slogan "live free, together" and contains various tools for planning logistics for a busy family, but this summer has seen a ­number of disgruntled ­teenagers publicly expressing their resentment at parental control by offering online tips on how to bypass its tracking ­software. One such video shows a girl demonstrating how she switches Life360 from ­tracking her phone to tracking her laptop, then leaving her laptop at home and sneaking out. "You're welcome – for saving your social life," she says.

Can we now be anonymous but still use technology?

It turns out that adults, both younger and older, value the freedom to move about without being monitored. “In urban areas you can go for a walk and be seen by thousands of people while being relatively anonymous,” says David Ryan Polgar, an expert on the ethics of technology. “But if your GPS data is being monitored, it’s as if you, as an individual, can’t be who you want to be.”

Now we can know exactly where our partners are going and what they're doing. That knowledge is something we might desire, but it can have negative trade-offs.

The incorporation of GPS chips into smartphones gave birth to a wealth of location-aware apps that rushed to answer two burning questions: "Where am I?" and "Where are you?". Google Latitude was one of the first to display locations of friends and family on a map in 2009, and after a number of rebrandings, it was incorporated into Google Maps, where it still sits. Apple launched a similar service, Find My Friends, in 2011, and it's now installed automatically as part of the iOS system software. But while ­technology gave us the ability to see people's locations, it gave no help with managing the effect it might have on personal relationships.

GPS tracking: peace of mind or amplifying our worries?

Anyone who’s been seduced by the “peace of mind” these apps promise will have had concerns they could never have foreseen. Can the virtuous act of looking after your loved ones become an obsessive monitoring of behaviour? Can an app that’s supposed to solve logistical problems actually amplify our worries? While someone might be happy to let you know where they are on one particular day, the granting and withdrawing of that privilege can play havoc with human feelings, a fact that’s been largely overlooked by the developers of these apps.

"Technologists see themselves as the creators of amazing things, but they're less clear on responsibilities," says Polgar. "If they create a hammer and somebody uses that hammer to build a house, that's fine – but what if they use it to hit somebody over the head?"

'Now we can know exactly where our partners are going and what they’re doing'

As our less honourable, more obsessive uses of location-tracking apps became apparent, they began to sell themselves slightly differently. One, called Couple Tracker, doesn't mention "peace of mind", but describes itself as the "best affair and cheating prevention mobile app for partners".

Incredibly, GPS – a US military invention – now provides information for married couples to argue about. “There’s that old saying that ignorance is bliss,” says Polgar. “But now we can know exactly where our partners are going and what they’re doing. That knowledge is something we might desire, but it can have negative trade-offs.” A rise in anxiety is one of those, while US lawyers have also reported the growing ­significance of tracking software in divorce cases – and not just with attempts to assert control of a relationship, but also for gathering evidence. In other words, spying.

On a consumer level, there needs to be a greater technical ability for us to know that we're being tracked and how we're being tracked.

Some apps are brazen about their true purpose. FlexiSpy, mSpy and TheTruthSpy are all designed to reveal personal details (not just location, but phone calls, messages and other data) without that person knowing. In mid-July, Google removed seven such apps (with names such as SMS Tracker, Phone Cell Tracker and Spy Tracker) from its Google Play store after finding that they ­surreptitiously send personal data to third parties. Crucially, these apps are rarely used with consent; they're usually installed by a snooping partner, acquaintance or family member on the target's phone when they're not looking – and worryingly, this isn't niche behaviour. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Centre found that four per cent of teenagers had installed a location-­tracking app on a partner's phone without permission, and a more recent report by the University Of Toronto entitled The Predator In Your Pocket makes very clear the risks of doing so. "These products are well known for their potential to facilitate violence and abuse," it reads, "and there is a documented history of them facilitating such harms."

Find My Friends works quietly in the background, but it can still be used nefariously 

But even if the world were rid of this murkier strain of spy software, perfectly legitimate software can still be used for abusive purposes, with Apple’s Find My Friends being a prime example; it works quietly in the background, sending your location to anyone who’s been granted permission (by whatever means) without ever reminding you that your location is being shared.

"On a consumer level, there needs to be a greater technical ability for us to know that we're being tracked and how we're being tracked," says Polgar. "There also needs to be a better structure surrounding law enforcement. If you realise that somebody is tracking you, what's your level of recourse?"

As is often the case with the ethics of technology, it’s hard to know whether the intrusive use of tracking apps is technology’s fault for enabling it, or our fault for embracing it. According to Polgar, our decision to use these apps has been something of a Faustian bargain. “A lot of the discussion that’s going to happen over the next couple of years will be around individual autonomy,” he says. “If we feel like we’re being watched, it offends our idea of what it means to be free. That’s the great irony of the digital age: it has caused us to reflect more on what it means to be human.”