When things go wrong: A digital sharing warning for couples

“When things go wrong” is a troubling prospect for most couples to face, but the internet—and the way that romantic partners engage both with and across it—could require that this worst-case scenario become more of a best practice.

In new research that Malwarebytes will release this month, romantic partners revealed that the degree to which they share passwords, locations, and devices with one another can invite mild annoyances—like having an ex mooch off a shared Netflix account—serious invasions of privacy—like being spied on through a smart doorbell—and even stalking and abuse.

Importantly, this isn’t just about jilted exes. This is also about people in active, committed relationships who have been pressured or forced into digital sharing beyond their limit.

The proof is in the data.

When Malwarebytes surveyed 500 people in committed relationships, 30% said they regretted sharing location tracking with their partner, 27% worried about their partners tracking them through location-based apps and services, and 23% worried that their current partner had accessed their accounts without their permission.

Plenty of healthy, happy relationships share digital access through trust and consent. For those couples, mapping out how to digitally separate and insulate their accounts from one another “when things go wrong” could seem misguided.

But for the many spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, and partners who do not fully trust their significant other—or who are still figuring out how much to trust someone new—this exercise should serve as an act of security.

Here’s what people can think about when working through just how much of their digital lives to share.

Inconvenient, annoying, and just plain bothersome

A great deal of digital sharing within couples occurs on streaming platforms. One partner has Netflix, the other has Hulu, the two share Disney+, and years down the line, the couple can’t quite tell who is in charge of Apple Music and who is supposed to cancel the one-week free trial to Peacock.

This logistical nightmare, already difficult for people who are not in a committed relationship, is further complicated after a breakup (or during the relationship if one partner is particularly sensitive about their weekly algorithmic recommendations from Spotify).

If an ex maintains access to your streaming accounts even after a breakup, there’s little chance for abuse, but the situation can be aggravating. Maybe you don’t want your ex to know that you’re watching corny rom-coms, or that you’re absolutely going through it on your seventh replay of Spotify’s “Angry Breakup Mix.” These are valid annoyances that will require a password reset to boot your ex out of the shared account.

But there’s one type of shared account that should raise more caution than those listed above: A shared online shopping account, like Amazon.

With access to a shared online shopping account, a spiteful ex could purchase goods using your saved credit card. They could also keep updates on your location should you ever move and change addresses in the app. This isn’t the same threat as an ex having your real-time location, but for some individuals—particularly survivors of domestic abuse who have escaped their partner—any leak of a new address presents a major risk.

Non-consensual tracking, monitoring, and spying

When couples move into the same home, it can make sense to start sharing a variety of location-based apps.

Looking for a vacation rental online for your next getaway? You’re (hopefully) lodging together. Ordering delivery because nobody wants to make dinner? That order is being sent to the same shared address. Even some credit cards offer specific bonuses on services like Lyft, incentivizing some couples to rely more heavily on one account to score extra credits.

While sharing access between these types of accounts can increase efficiency, it’s important to know—and this may sound obvious—that many of these same shared location-based apps can reveal locations to a romantic partner, even after a breakup.

Your vacation could be revealed to an ex who is abusing their previously shared login privileges into services like Airbnb or Vrbo, or by someone peering into the trip history of a shared Uber account that discloses that a car was recently taken to the airport. Food delivery apps, similarly, can reveal new addresses after a move—a particular risk for survivors of domestic abuse who are trying to escape their physical situation.

In fact, any account that tracks and provides access to location—including Google’s own “Timeline” feature and fitness tracking devices made by Strava—could, in the wrong hands, become a security risk for stalking and abuse.

The vulnerabilities extend farther.

With the popularity of Internet of Things devices like smart doorbells and baby monitors, some partners may want to consider how safe they are from spying in their own homes. Plenty of user posts on a variety of community forums claim that exes and former spouses weaponized video-equipped doorbells and baby monitors to spy on a partner.

These scenarios are frightening, but they are part of a larger question about whether you should share your location with your partner. With the proper care and discussion, your location-sharing will be consensual, respected, and convenient for all.

Stalking and abuse

When discussing the risks around digital sharing between couples, it’s important to clarify that trustworthy partners do not become abusive simply because of their access to technology. A shared food delivery app doesn’t guarantee that a partner will be spied on. A baby monitor with a live video stream is sometimes just that—a baby monitor.

But many of the stories shared here expose the dangers that lie within arm’s reach for abusive partners. The technology alone cannot be blamed for the abuse. Instead, the technology must be scrutinized simply because of its ubiquitous use in today’s world.

The most serious concerns regarding digital access are the potential for stalking and abuse.

For partners that share devices and device passcodes, the notorious threat of stalkerware makes it easy for an abusive partner to pry into a person’s photos, videos, phone calls, text messages, locations, and more. Stalkerware can be installed on a person’s device in a matter of minutes—a low barrier of entry for couples that live with one another and who share each other’s device passcodes.

For partners who share a vehicle, a recent problem has emerged. In December, The New York Times reported on the story of a woman who—despite obtaining a restraining order against her ex-husband—could not turn off her shared vehicle’s location tracking. Because the car was in her husband’s name, he was able to reportedly continue tracking and harassing her.

Even shared smart devices have become a threat. According to reporting from The New York Times in 2018, survivors of domestic abuse began calling support lines with a bevvy of new concerns within their homes:

“One woman had turned on her air-conditioner, but said it then switched off without her touching it. Another said the code numbers of the digital lock at her front door changed every day and she could not figure out why. Still another told an abuse help line that she kept hearing the doorbell ring, but no one was there.”

The survivors’ stories all pointed to the abuse of shared smart devices.

Whereas the solutions to many of the inconveniences and annoyances that can come with shared digital access are simple—a reset password, a removal of a shared account—the “solutions” for technology-enabled abuse are far more complex. These are problems that cannot be solely addressed with advice and good cybersecurity hygiene.

If you are personally experiencing this type of harassment, you can contact the National Network to End Domestic Violence on their hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

Making sure things go right

Sharing your life with your partner should be a function of trust, and for many couples, it is. But, in the same way that it is impossible for a cybersecurity company to ignore even one ransomware attack, it’s also improper for this cybersecurity and privacy company to ignore the reality facing many couples today.

There are new rules and standards for digital access within relationships. With the right information and the right guidance, hopefully more people will feel empowered to make the best decisions for themselves.

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