Domestic Spying: Tracking your loved one's cell may give you peace of mind, but what are you giving up in the process? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Domestic Spying: Tracking your loved one's cell may give you peace of mind, but what are you giving up in the process?

"We should all be concerned that we are losing our privacy."

Illustration by Rhonda Libbey
Illustration by Rhonda Libbey

Jeanne Rose felt something was not right about the way her husband was acting. 

She feared he was lying about his whereabouts, and had a suspicion that he was falling back into addiction. In the past she would have had to take off work and physically follow him around town, or hire a private investigator to do it for her.

This time, she called her cell-phone company. 

Last January, T-Mobile told the 26-year-old Crafton resident that the smartphones that she and her husband use have a feature that would allow her to know where the phones were at all times. 

 "They just told me go to the app market and search ‘mobile security,' then download what comes up free," Rose says. "We are on the family plan and our cell phones are in my name, so I just logged on and clicked ‘locate my phone' as if it were lost." 

And with those clicks, Rose joined the growing number of Americans who are using apps on smartphones to keep tabs on their spouses, children and other family members.

The apps are mostly free to download and work on any smartphone running Apple's IOS, Google's Android or the Blackberry operating systems. They take advantage of the GPS features these advanced phones use to provide a phone's exact location. 

Most are marketed to parents to keep track of their teen-agers, but makers of the popular apps say it is not uncommon for them to be used for other tracking purposes, such as locating a stolen car that has an iPhone in it, or confirming the veracity of a spouse's reported destination.

The collection and use of this data, however, is not without its concerns, according to Andy Hoover, Pennsylvania legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Says Hoover, "We should all be concerned that we are losing our privacy."

Rose's operation began one night while her husband, Brad, slept. She installed the app on his Nokia Neuron, and was then able to track his location from her Nokia MyTouch, and from any computer with Internet access. His smartphone's location would show up as a dot on a map.

"I tracked him and then retracked him to see where he was," Rose says. "We live in Crafton. I knew there was no reason for him to be in Lawrenceville. He used to get drugs or go drinking there."

Her suspicions were confirmed. Rose says because they had no friends in that part of the city and her husband did not work near that area, she would call him repeatedly until he answered.

"I knew my husband was in trouble," she says. "There was no hiding it at that point. He couldn't get away with it."

She says having this information allowed her to help her husband before it was too late. 

Brad Rose, 28, is now completing rehab at a local recovery house, which he checked into voluntarily. 

"At the time, I did not like her tracking me," Brad Rose says. "But now that I look back, I think it helped me. For someone like me, in my situation, it turned out to be a good thing.

"There are definitely pros and cons, [but] it helped me get back on track."

Opinions on the need and effectiveness of using tracking apps this way vary.

Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director at Gateway Rehab, has mixed emotions about the Roses' experience. While he says he's happy things worked out for this couple, he would not recommend this as a standalone method for ensuring a loved one's sobriety, especially over counseling for both the addict and the addict's spouse. 

"These apps could lull you with a false sense of security. And, people with addiction can be ingenious when finding ways to use," Capretto says. "Just trust your gut on whether they are slipping into addiction."

 Capretto says people who love someone with addiction may be better served by joining a support group such as Al-Anon, rather than using these types of apps to keep their loved ones out of bars or away from drug dealers. 

"I would caution spouses against thinking they are the only defense. There is only so much you can do for the other person," Capretto says. "Ultimately, the only person you have control over is you." 

As for the makers of these tracking apps, they are quick to tout the advantage of knowing where your loved ones are. 

Amanda Zweerink, vice president of marketing for Life360, said her company's product is an app that allows families to stay connected.

"We are not a sneaky Big Brother app," she says. "It is an application that allows families to stay in sync throughout the day." 

Life360 is free for Android, IOS and Blackberry. There is a $4.99 monthly fee for non-smartphones. Zweerink says that is because they are harder to track. 

Though it is marketed primarily to parents, Zweerink says she receives feedback about the app being used in other ways.

"We get a lot of email from wives whose husbands are truck drivers [and] who love that they can see where their spouse is on a map. And, we have heard some dramatic stories. Users are able to track down lost purses and stolen cars with police."

But even Zweerink says she recommends having a conversation with family members about how the app will be used before it's pressed into service. 

All Life360 users in a family have avatars that appear on map. It is possible to know where all linked phones are at any given time.

Victoria Repice, a spokesperson for NQ Mobile, says her company's app encourages more conversation between family members.

"We believe parents in this digital world need help," Repice says. "Our product provides that. The location feature makes it easy to know where your kids are."

NQ Family Guardian has a feature called Geo-Fences that allows users to set up a specific area that family members should be in. If they leave that area, an email message is sent to the parent who set the boundaries.

In addition to the location services, however, NQ Family Guardian also offers the ability for a user to remotely monitor, by computer or phone, all calls, texts and pictures another family member gets on another linked phone. 

And what's the price tag for this level of tracking? Family Guardian costs $34.99 per year after a 30-day free trial.

For the ACLU's Hoover, one of the main concerns is not what an individual will do with the data collected, but rather what the company that collects it will ultimately do.

"Technology is presenting new and intriguing ways to collect information about private citizens," Hoover says. "The real concern is when that intersects with the government. The data could be mined. When people are using this technology, an electronic trail is created and that info could be found or used."

Hoover said consumers should know what kind of company they are allowing to collect this information. He said people should read the user agreements and be well informed about what they are signing up for.

"When private companies have all of this data, they could turn it over to the government," he says. "Some companies will fight to not turn the info over, like Twitter did recently, but some may not."

For their part, the Roses said they are happy that Jeanne found the app. They credit it with helping Jeanne catch Brad's slide back into addiction earlier than they could have without it.

Now, they are working on rebuilding trust. Jeanne Rose says the app is still installed on the smartphone, and it can be difficult for her to avoid the temptation to locate Brad's phone when he is home on a weekend pass from the rehab recovery house.

"It's addicting," says Jeanne Rose. "I want to do it now to ease my nerves when he does not answer the phone. But, I know he's sober now. I have to trust him."

Disability Pride
22 images

Disability Pride

By Mars Johnson