This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Love is dangerous. Embarking on a romantic relationship with another human – stripping back your ego and laying bare your soul – is one of the scariest trips a person can take. To survive it, you need trust. How else do you know your partner won’t laugh at you? Leave you? Scrape out the shrivelled remnants of your heart and hurl them into the Thames?
As a result, great displays of trust are now great displays of romance. By showing someone how much you trust them, you are by proxy showing them how much you love them. It’s why we choose to share our secrets, fears and even phone passcodes with our partners: it proves that, between the pair of you, there’s nothing that needs to be hidden.
But as the world around us changes, the stakes are getting higher. Now, the majority of our thoughts – even the ones rotting away in the darkest corners of our minds – can be traced through our phone usage and internet history. With the right passwords, you can hand over the keys to your entire inner world: your emails, messages, camera roll, banking history, and even – oh god – the unhinged ravings of your Notes app.
For many young people, this radical intimacy isn’t such a scary prospect. According to one 2015 study, 19 percent of teens are happy to share their email and social media passwords with friends. Another, from 2018, suggested that the number could be even higher, with 70 percent of participants admitting to sharing passwords, PINs or fingerprints with their significant other.
“Passcode and password sharing is really popular with my friends,” says Suprina, 21, one of the hosts of VICE’s Vent podcast. “It’s so popular that I don’t even think twice about it. It’s almost become mandatory in relationships because, if you are not hiding anything, why can’t you give me your password?”
It doesn’t stop at password swapping, either. Location sharing – where people can track each other’s whereabouts through apps like Find My iPhone, or through social media tagging on Snapchat – has also become a supposedly healthy indicator of commitment.
“I share my location with my boyfriend,” affirms Jay, 18. “It’s just easier to have access to him and to see where he is. For example, if I’m at work and I get a phone call from him but I can’t answer, he can look at where I am and understand why. It also shows a level of trust to let someone know your whereabouts.”
If you’ve got nothing to hide, Jay argues, then there really shouldn’t be a problem. But is knowing this much about a person ever really necessary? And what happens when things go wrong?
For Lexi, 22, this kind of oversharing had the opposite effect: rather than bringing her closer to her partner, it stoked their insecurities and pushed them further apart. “I started sharing my passwords and location with my ex because we wanted to know where each other were,” she remembers. “Mainly, it was a control thing. If, for some reason, my location services glitched and didn’t work, there would be a follow-up text asking where I was or who I was with. Even though neither of us ever cheated on one another or pursued other people, it was an issue. It was an invasion of privacy.”
Eventually, the pair broke up. “We have so much information about other people right at our fingertips and it’s tempting to open that door,” she adds. “But it’s also dangerous because people are very complex and have the right to privacy. If you start invading that, especially with someone you want to be in a relationship with, it can cause distrust for no reason other than overthinking things.”
The temptation to log into someone else’s world – to follow the footsteps of both their online and offline behaviour – can be overwhelming. But it can also be dangerous, encouraging obsessive behaviour and an unhealthy level of surveillance. For this reason, many anti-stalking organisations warn against sharing any of your personal information. After all, if you trust someone, then why would you feel the need to track their movements?
Even if you don’t consent to sharing this kind of information with your partner, there are still ways it can be accessed. “I know some cases with friends where they’ve downloaded an app on someone else's phone to track their location, but put it under ‘hidden apps’ so they can’t see it’s on their phone,” says Suprina.
Hidden apps – also known as “stalkerware” – offer third parties unrestricted access to a person’s smartphone activity. And, despite sounding like high-tech spy software, they’re surprisingly accessible. One study from 2015 reported that four percent of teenagers had downloaded GPS tracking or stalkerware to a partners’ device without their knowledge.
“This type of spyware is very problematic, and can lead to abuse or harassment,” warns Professor Aleksander Essex, a cybersecurity researcher at Western University. “You could use the phone’s GPS not just to see where they are right now, but build a detailed profile about them simply from the history of where they’ve been. You know where they live, where they work, how they spend their free time, and with whom. An app like this could allow you to access emails, chat messages, and social media feeds. It could allow you to turn on the microphone or camera.”
Essex, like many cyber security experts, warns people to be vigilant. He also suggests that, if you feel the need to watch someone this closely, perhaps it’s because the trust wasn’t there in the first place. “Speaking as a cybersecurity researcher, I would strongly caution people to inform themselves about the laws and make sure they’re not breaking them,” he stresses. “Speaking as a husband, I would urge people to do some substantial soul-searching about the ethical and potentially extreme trust-breaking consequences of spying on their partner.”
After her experiences, Lexi says she definitely wouldn’t ever use location sharing again, but would be happy to share her phone passcode. “In my dream relationship, we wouldn’t need to snoop on each other’s accounts and locations,” she says. “But if for some reason someone were to look at the other’s phone non-habitually, it wouldn’t be an issue, because there would be nothing to hide. We would be secure enough with ourselves to know that we respect our relationship, and that we trust one another.”