The location of our romantic partners is something we have had to take on trust (or mistrust) for hundreds of thousands of years. Now we no longer have to, what does that mean for our relationships?
As if smartphone technology hasn’t done enough already, it has now brought us to the point where every person in a relationship has a choice to make as to whether or not to allow their partner to know their precise location at every second of the day and night.
Location sharing can be done through a growing number of native and third-party apps on most smartphones and its popularity has grown to the point where the issue often lights up social media and other forums, where it is wildly divisive – one Reddit post about the issue last year attracted nearly 500 comments. Those in favour typically gave one of two reasons – safety or convenience – while those opposed offered a much wider and vaguer range. I narrowed them down to the following categories:
INSANE AND NEUROTIC
DON’T LIKE IT
DEPRESSING LIFE OF FEAR
LOSS OF PRIVACY / INCREASED SUSPICION
STALKING / CONTROLLING
USES A LOT OF BATTERY
I’M AN ADULT AND I DO WHAT I WANT
This list also provides a sense of the forcefulness of the respective sides of the argument: Those in favour see location sharing as sort of useful, while those opposed believe it was created in hell, with its production overseen by Satan.
Jess and Oliver (not their real names) are a couple in their mid-20s who began sharing locations with each other soon after they started dating two and a half years ago. They were going on a trip in different vehicles and Jess thought it might be useful to co-ordinate their movements.
“It wasn’t really that necessary, but I was like oh, this is a fun little feature. I just messaged Oliver and I was just like, ‘Accept my request. I’ve just added you on this’.”
“I just remember being like, oh, this is handy, and finding it really funny that I could see little head emojis.”
Oliver says: ”I don’t remember really caring at the time. I was just like, ‘Okay, cool’.”
Both had used location tracking apps before – most frequently Snapchat’s Snap Maps, which can show the precise location of friends who are also using the feature.
Snap Maps and related apps have helped normalise relationship surveillance for a new generation. While being interviewed for this article, Jess opened Snap Maps and went through the locations of all the people she could see: There were 15 in New Zealand, 14 in Australia, two in America and several in Europe.
Both Jess and Oliver had previously used Snap Maps to check in on people they were dating.
Jess says: “When I was dating guys, I would become obsessed with their location. It was like the whole phase of being in the unknown realm with this new person and you don’t know if they like you back or not. So it was just fact-checking them.”
In their relationship, they use the feature mostly for knowing when to start getting dinner ready, although Jess also uses it as a safety feature if she’s going out alone at night. While neither sees it as a problem for them, neither thinks it’s an unalloyed good.
Jess says: “I feel like if you didn’t trust someone in a relationship it would be weaponised a lot more because it is just like a seed to fuel your distrust.”
She says she has seen relationships fail over it: One friend broke up with her boyfriend after discovering via Snap Maps that he was cheating with a mutual friend.
Even when the situation isn’t so serious, the impact on relationships can be negative. A friend once pulled out of a social occasion, saying she was sick, then showed up a few hours later on Snap Maps at a sporting event. Had she been lying about her sickness or was there an innocent explanation? This is part of the problem – location trackers raise a lot of questions, but rarely give firm answers.
“I think it is a problem,” Jess says. “I don’t think we are immune to it because we grew up with it. I just think it depends on the type of relationship you’re in.”
“I think it probably causes more harm than good,” Oliver says.
“Ours is like a neutral thing that we put zero thought into, that just hasn’t caused any dramas, so we keep it there.”
Clinical psychologist, relationship expert and Herald columnist Nic Beets is not a fan of location sharing.
Part of the problem, he says, is that relying on technology to tell us where our partners are erodes our need to communicate and connect with them: “How much do we think about each other?” he says. “How much are we showing consideration and care?”
He says the struggle to stay connected with a partner becomes more difficult as the relationship goes on.
He cites the phrase “Bids for connection”, which was coined by American psychologist and marriage researcher John Gottman and captures the idea that what is being communicated when we talk to our partners is often far more important than the subject being discussed.
“Even trivial things like, ‘Look at that cloud’ – it’s a bid for connection,” he says. “The shape of the cloud is not important.
“Maybe having a tracker on your phone is more efficient in terms of achieving the task of knowing where your partner is, but what is discarded is really important.”
Beets says humans are “communication machines”: “We cannot not communicate. We’re communicating all the time. And often the communication is, ‘I don’t want to talk to you’, or ‘I’m not willing to trust you with what’s really going on with me’.”
Of the idea that location sharing makes it easier for couples to organise things like when to start cooking dinner, he says: “‘Why does your relationship have such poor levels of communication that you can’t have that conversation? Why isn’t there that level of courtesy in your relationship?’ And if your partner goes, ‘Oh, that’s just too much bother’, why are you not kicking up bobsy die about it?”
He’s not convinced about the safety argument either. While acknowledging there are some “extreme” cases where it might be useful, more often he sees it as undermining trust.
“Why are you checking on your partner,” he says, “rather than relying on your partner to keep you updated about their movement?”
Police are also not big advocates of relying on location technology for safety, from several perspectives.
They say it has the capacity to enable controlling and coercive behaviours within relationships, and they encourage people experiencing such behaviours to ask for help and call police if they feel unsafe.
They also advise against relying on cellphones for safety in the outdoors, particularly in remote locations where coverage can be unreliable. They advise using personal locator beacons instead, which are more robust and have better battery life.
And while some newer smartphones are able to detect impact, such as in a car crash, automatically calling 111 and sharing the device’s location, police say the technology is still new and should not be relied on in situations where there is a risk of harm and lives are in danger.
University of Auckland researcher Andrew Chen is an expert on the impacts of digital technologies on society, and though he says the technology is highly accurate and reliable – at least in urban environments – it has some obvious drawbacks.
From a safety perspective, he says, one important thing that’s missing is context: “You see the circle’s no longer moving, but you don’t know why.”
He says you should also be aware that you’re probably already sharing your location with people you know a lot less well than your partner, specifically tech companies like Uber and Google, which require you to have the feature turned on in order for you to use their ubiquitous mapping apps.
“There are good actors and bad actors,” he says. “And I think someone like Google and Google Maps have kind of shown that they can be trusted with this information, that they haven’t done anything bad with it.”
Uber, however, has a more chequered ethical record. The company was fined in 2016 for a data breach and also came under scrutiny for using what was known as “God view” to track individuals, including a reporter.
Chen doesn’t currently share his location with his partner. “Both she and I work in privacy and I think we’d probably both say no. There are some things that you just don’t need to know.”
Asked if he thought there were any tech-based solutions that were superior to location sharing for purposes of safety and convenience, he barely even paused for thought: “A phone call?”