My partner is stalking my location.
It's never been easier to track your daily movements. GPS technologies are built-into our phones, available for any app that wants to share your location. Photos are embedded with metadata, identifying when and where the photo was taken. Seemingly harmless social media posts from your friends reveal when you're on vacation, or where you're going out on the weekend. "People Search Websites" will sell your home address to anyone willing to pay $5. We are exposed by default in every new app and gadget, with no regard to the threats that emerge from such public availability.
It's frightening to know that your partner can track you. It's as if they're omnipotent and you can't escape. Whether they're your current partner, trying to control your behavior, or an ex-partner, trying to assert power over you, the reality is the same: this is stalking. Stalking is highly illegal in every state in the U.S.—it's totally okay to reach out to a Domestic Violence professional or law enforcement if that's what you feel is right. But because our technologies make surveillance so easy, you might want to take more direct action in addressing your partner's stalking. Cybersecurity strategies will minimize your location data shared with the world while identifying potential data breaches. Please be aware that if your partner becomes aware of your resistance to location tracking, they may escalate their controlling behavior in retaliation. Read through the following strategies and choose what best protects your safety.
GPS Tracking in Cellphones
Your cellphone reveals your physical location at every given moment. GPS, which means "Global Positioning System", determines where your phone is (and likely where you are) in real-time by listening to satellites. This tech does not rely on the internet—there's a chip in your phone that receives and processes the satellite signals. GPS functionality is available to apps through "Location Services". Our apps use GPS for all sorts of fun features, like returning search results for our area, or connecting you to local events. However, this accessibility assumes that you are both safe and consenting to the sharing of this data.
Your partner can track your location through apps that use Location Services. As a rule of thumb, you should disable Location Services for any app that doesn't have a very good reason for it. Lyft or Uber obviously need your location, but does Facebook? It's better to overly protective of this data and make "no location" your default. In many cases, you may not be aware of which apps are using your location, so go through your Location Services settings and/or privacy settings and update each app accordingly. Some controlling partners secretly download apps on your phone solely for the purpose of surveillance, so if you see any unfamiliar apps, delete them right away.
Location Data in Photos
Digital photos, taken by phones and cameras, contain "exif" data. This is metadata about the photo, such as what device was used, the photo settings, and when the photo was taken. Frequently, the GPS functionality in these devices allow "geotagging" to be added to the exif data, meaning the photo's location is embedded in the photo. Anyone with access to the photo can see this information. Without realizing it, sending a photo to a friend or posting it online can expose incredibly private information about where you are. The same information can be found in videos too. If your partner is tech-savvy and can see your photos, they can view this vulnerable exif data.
For a thorough guide on how to remove exif data, you can read this article by HowToGeek. It's a lot easier to remove exif data on a computer, as you can edit the file directly. Photos on your phone are more difficult, and you may need to download an app to erase exif data. The best solution is to disable Location Services for your camera and video apps, including apps like Snapchat that have camera permissions. Some websites like Facebook or Imgur strip exif data before showing photos to other users, but they may retain that data for their own purposes. Because it's difficult to keep track of privacy across so many websites, it's easier to just prevent the location data from being recorded in the first place.
Social Media Sharing
Your partner doesn't need to be tech-savvy to find out where you are—they can just look on social media. Your profile discloses where you work (whose location is easily discovered), your photos reveal where you've been through location data or recognizable scenery, and your events suggest where you will be. The first course of action is to buckle down on privacy settings; our Secure Your Social Media defense strategy covers this approach in more detail. However, even when your account is super secure, your social network may still expose information about you. Just as your posts, photos, and profiles can indicate your location, so can your friends'. And anyone who friends you or follows you can access your activity too.
Managing your social network can reduce the risk that your partner can surveil you. Check your friend or follower list for people who you don't know, or aren't very close to—if you ran into them on the street, would you want to talk to them? If not, delete them. Meanwhile, encourage your friends not to tag you in their posts. Ideally, you can explain your need for privacy so that they'll secure their accounts as well. Beware of impersonators using a familiar name, as it could be your partner in disguise. When you RSVP to Facebook events, understand that some events are public and may share your name. Know that Facebook apps, quizzes, and surveys that connect to your profile often sell your information to 3rd parties, so try to avoid them (this is covered in more detail below). It's not fair that you have to analyze your social media to protect yourself from being watched, but sadly it's way easier to stalk and harass online than it is to be private.
People Search Websites
There is a large industry of "People Search Websites" that aggregate your private information to be publicly sold. By querying postal records, court records, and other government data, in addition to purchasing data from advertisers and social media platforms, these websites can create an astonishingly accurate profile of your name, address, occupation, family members, education, phone number, and a multitude of other data points. Your partner can easily purchase this information for a low-price if they want to, completely legally.
You can remove yourself from people-search websites. The website Abine offers a guide to popular people-search websites and how to opt-out. It's a long and monotonous process, which is why they encourage you to pay for their "DeleteMe" service. You shouldn't buy this service. It creates an expectation that you'll be completely "removed" from the internet, but that's a lie—there will always be more sites that offer your data. It's very unfortunate that these websites are legal and we have so little recourse.
Despite the popularity of people searching, you can fight back. Many of the websites, beyond government records, rely on data collected from your web and shopping activity. Make a point to lie about your personal information online. When registering for websites, don't give real information unless absolutely necessary. You will never get in trouble for giving a fake name or address, even though it feels like you're doing something dishonest—your safety is more of a priority than their consumer data. When signing up for rewards programs or surveys, know that this data will be resold to 3rd parties and will likely become available to people search websites. On social media, beware apps, games, quizzes, and other fun novelties that ask to be connected to your profile; they often collect that data to be resold. These strategies won't guarantee that your personal information will be protected from people searching, but it certainly makes it more difficult.
Modern technology wants you to expose your location as much as possible. When your partner exploits this exposure to surveil you, it can be overwhelmingly intimidating and frightening. You can resist: be diligent about how Location Services is used by your apps, and delete any unfamiliar app that's using your location. Disable location for your camera and video apps, so that exif data won't reveal your location. Secure your social media account while being aware of how your social network may leak your private information. Opt-out of popular people-search websites and be frugal with giving away personal information online. At the end of the day, it shouldn't be your responsibility to not be stalked. Fortunately, you have so many ways to fight back.