My partner is monitoring my computer or cell phone activity.
When your digital privacy is compromised, your behavior changes. Knowing your partner is reading your emails, you may choose not to send an email venting about a recent conflict. You might avoid texting a friend because your partner could become jealous. You may want to research domestic violence resources, or strategies on how to leave a relationship, but worry that your partner will find out and punish you. Surveillance is ultimately about control. Watching your electronic activity could be as simple as frequently asking to see your phone, claiming it's "normal" for partners to share their devices. It could be as complex as secretly installing a Keylogger: malicious software that records your keystrokes, revealing your passwords, emails, and anything else you type into your computer. Regardless of the severity, surveillance infringes privacy. Relationships should be built on mutual respect and trust, not suspicion.
Resisting surveillance depends on whether you have total control over your devices, whether you feel safe enough to alter those devices, and how willing you are to modify your software. We'll explore a number of defense strategies, ranging from avoidance to obstruction of surveillance. Read them and decide what's best for you. You don't have to take action right away—just being aware of surveillance gives you strength.
How do you know if your partner is monitoring you? It's really difficult to keep track of everything installed on your phone and computer. The following is a list of behaviors that could indicate surveillance. It's not an exhaustive list, so above all: trust your gut.
- Your partner frequently asks to see your computer or cell phone, or takes it.
- Your partner demands passwords to your computer or cell phone.
- Your partner wants login information for your email, banking, shopping, or social media accounts.
- Your partner is known to be "good with computers" and handles your computer tasks.
- Your partner gives you devices that they've set-up for you.
- Your partner spends a significant amount of time on their computer and is unusually secretive about it.
- Your partner makes vague references to activities or conversations they were not present for.
- Your partner gets unexpectedly angry towards a person you've recently communicated with.
- Your partner threatens to reveal embarrassing information about you.
Change Your Passwords
If you think your partner is reading your texts, watching your emails, looking at your photos, or using your cell phone, you can change your passwords to lock them out. Read our Protect Your Passwords defense strategy for more detailed information. Changing passwords depends on your safety levels. Don't change your passwords if there's a risk of your partner retaliating violently. You may not know whether your partner has your passwords—try changing one password and wait a few days to see if your partner reacts. If they don't react, try changing another password and repeat the process.
More and more people are using fingerprint passwords for their phones and laptops. While fingerprints are way easier than numeric or letter passwords, they're incredibly easy to hack. Your partner could simply swipe your finger while you're asleep or intoxicated, or physically force you to unlock a device. You should avoid fingerprint passwords if there's any chance that someone could use your fingerprint against your will.
If you're separated from your partner, change all of your important passwords just to be safe. One option is to use the use a Password Manager. A password manager generates and stores passwords for you, so you don't have to remember them. This makes it impossible for your partner to guess your password or hack into your account. You can also use the Two-Step Verification defense strategy. When you login to a website, you will need a number generated by your phone or received in a text. Even if your partner has your password, they would still need your cell phone to access your website.
Protect Your Computer Web Browsing
Web browsers store every website you visit in their "history". Your partner can check this history to see which websites you've visited and when. Web browsers also store "cookies", pieces of data used by websites to store login information, website settings, or advertising data. Cookies let you return to websites and still be logged in. Though it might be inconvenient, log out of your websites when you're done using them. That way, your partner can't use your account. Alternatively, you can customize your web browser to delete your activity for you. Our Private Web Browsing defense strategy explains in-depth how you protect your web browsing automatically or on a case-by-case basis.
Protect Your Cell Phone Apps
It's possible to download malicious apps that monitor other apps. Delete any apps that you have not personally downloaded. For the apps you do use, check the app permissions. Data such as location or photos can unknowingly reveal very personal information. Disable access to photos, cameras, location, microphones, and other apps unless they're absolutely necessary. For example, it makes sense for a photo app to have access to a camera. A calendar app that asks for location? Not as important. Lots of apps store your data in "the cloud", which means it's backed up somewhere. Read the My Partner has Unwanted Access to my Online Accounts threat scenario if you think your partner has access to your cloud.
If you're not comfortable changing your phone, use your apps more secretly. In Safari and Chrome, browse in a "Private Window" or "Incognito Window", which will not record your browsing history. In your texting apps, feel free to delete conversations (though you can only delete the entire conversation). For phone calls, delete call history. For contacts, you can use fake names when you store a phone number. Close apps when you're not using them, so that they don't record your activity. Log-out of the app entirely when you don't want your partner seeing what you've been up to.
Spouseware is a popular kind of of stalking software. Installed secretly on an Android or iOS phone, it can record everything you type in your apps, watch every website you visit, and see all of your camera photos. Spouseware is sometimes hidden behind a familiar logo (like a Facebook logo) or in a forgotten folder on your phone. Open your apps and delete anything that seems fishy. Sometimes, a partner will "jailbreak" a phone, meaning they hack the phone so they secretly control it beyond what the operating system normally allows you to control. In these cases, you have no way to tell whether there is spouseware on your phone. If your partner gave you your phone, tampers with it, or is especially tech-savvy, you may have spouseware: you'll have to trust your instinct in these situations. Your best defense is to either reinstall the operating system (detailed below), purchase a new phone, or use outside devices (like a library or work computer) for sensitive activity.
Install Malware Protection
Malware is malicious software installed on your computer without your consent. Keylogging is particularly evil malware, recording all the keyboard strokes on your computer. There's also malware can track your web browsing or email application. "Privacy controls", usually meant for kids, can act like malware, watching your activity. Because there are so many kinds of malware, it's difficult to detect them. The best security strategy is to install MalwareBytes. This program will scan your computer and alert you to suspicious software. You can choose to delete them or leave them be. Malware protection is not 100% accurate, so even if it doesn't find malware, there's no guarantee that your computer is safe. It's also not very useful for cell phones, in which case you should just delete unfamiliar apps or reinstall the operating system.
Reinstall Your Operating System
Sometimes it's easiest to just reinstall the operating system on your cell phone or computer to ensure that it's free of malware and spouseware. All of your applications, data, and settings can be erased, though you'll have to option to keep your personal files if you like. Every operating system has a different way of refreshing, so here are instructions for Mac OS and Windows 10. When you refresh your device, back-up your important data in the cloud or on an external hard-drive. The Back-Up Your Data defense strategy can help you decide how to protect your data.
Use an Alternate Computer or Cell Phone
Work computers are super secure when your partner doesn't have access to your office. Not to mention, it's your IT Department's job to prevent malware. Using your work computer for sensitive activity, like researching domestic violence resources, is a great option. Libraries are equipped with public computers and helpful librarians. Visiting a library tends not to be very suspicious; they're also free, accessible, and generally within driving distance. Many librarians would happily assist you with anything internet-related. You can also consider buying a "secret" laptop or phone, but only if you feel safe hiding physical objects from your partner. You could use these devices for anything that'd be dangerous on your normal devices.
Create Secret Accounts
You can always create new accounts that your partner is unaware of. When you register, create a totally new password that your partner wouldn't be able to guess. Use an email address and/or login name that your partner is unfamiliar with. Browse with a private window for the entire process. You can also make your secret accounts on a work or library computer. The Create Secret Accounts defense strategy explores this approach in more detail.
Privacy is the freedom to make personal decisions without harm. When your partner is monitoring your cell phone or computer activity, you might change your behavior to avoid conflict or satisfy your partner. Instead, you can take control of your devices: changing passwords will keep your partner out of your most important online accounts. Browsing the web privately ensures that your online activity doesn't leave a trace. Deleting unfamiliar apps and being mindful of app permissions reduces the risk of apps secretly spying on you. Installing malware protection reveals the presence of keyloggers or other malicious software installed on your computer. Reinstalling your operating system gives you a clean slate on your devices. Using work, library, or privately purchased computers provides a safe space for browsing the internet. Creating secret accounts encourages privacy without compromising accounts that might be monitored.
Surveillance is a breach of trust. You shouldn't have to look over your shoulder when you're online.