by Danielle Mozingo
If you suspect that your spouse, partner or former partner is spying on you, this post will outline red flags to look out for, the many ways spouses spy on one another, and the legal implications of that activity.
How to tell if your current or former partner is spying on you
There are a few key signs that someone may be spying on you. First, the person may know way too much about you despite not knowing you very long. On the other hand, you may be very familiar with the person but find that they somehow have knowledge of small details about you or your day that you did not tell them. Another sign of spying is the realization that people are following you when walking or driving. Check to see if the person is matching your speed or waiting for you. Coincidences, such as someone showing up where you are, may be a sign that they are aware of your location. While these situations may be susceptible to an innocent explanation, trust your instincts. The executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Cindy Southworth, gave an example in a 2018 interview: a woman’s ex sent her a link to shoes saying they would “look great on her” shortly after she looked at them online.
Methods of spying
As our world becomes increasingly technological, there are many ways that spouses can spy on their partners remotely. A popular choice is spyware — also called “stalkerware” —- which can be downloaded onto a device and used to remotely monitor the device’s activity.
Spyware can be installed in your computer, giving spouses access to emails and websites the spouse is visiting. One form of spyware is called keylogging, which allows someone to track every character you enter on a keyboard. By tracking everything that’s typed on a keyboard, keylogging can be used to discover just about all internet activity including your passwords, content of your emails and chats, searches you make, and websites you visit. To protect yourself from keylogging, install an anti-virus program like McAfee or Norton. These programs can detect the presence of spyware and prevent it from being installed.
Alternatively, your partner may not even need to install spyware to spy on your activity if they use a computer that you are already logged into or can easily guess your passwords. Be sure to log out of your email and social media accounts to prevent spying. Consider setting up password protection for emails, such as two-step verification.
Cell phone monitoring is a bit harder to prevent. Many apps market themselves as "remote access tools" for parents and employers but are used by controlling partners. One such app, PhoneSheriff, allowed users to access another person's phone secretly and remotely. The user could read texts, view photos, and access GPS location. Although it was discontinued in 2018, there are still many apps like this that are available.
Legal implications of spying
Installing spyware on a spouse's phone is illegal under state and federal laws.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) prohibits anyone from engaging in two types of behavior: (1) intentionally intercepting, using, or disclosing any wire or oral communication by using any electronic, mechanical, or other device; and (2) accessing a wire or electronic communication while in storage without authorization. Under this law, illegal behaviors include, but are not limited to, reading emails without permission, recording phone calls or video calls, and recording or videotaping in-person conversations. Violating this law can result in a $250,000 fine and imprisonment up to five years.
Like the ECPA, North Carolina Electronic Surveillance Act criminalizes the willful interception, use or disclosure of the contents of any wire, oral, or electronic communication. When a person violates the North Carolina Electronic Surveillance Act, the victim could receive damages of $100 per day of the violation or $1,000 whichever is greater. You could also recover damages imposed by the court to punish that person and recover your attorney fees.
You may also sue in civil court for invasion of privacy. Consult with an attorney before filing a suit.
However, both the federal law and state law follow the “one party consent" rule, meaning it is illegal to record a conversation where none of the parties know they are being recorded. If your spouse records a conversation between the two of you without your knowledge, this is legal because at least one person (your spouse) is aware of the recording. However, if your spouse records a phone call or "bugs" a room where you are having a conversation with other persons and no person in the conversation knows it is being recorded, this is illegal. It does not matter who owns the phone or home nor who pays for them.
Another exception is reserved for parents who are suspicious of abuse. In this situation, a parent can record conversations between the spouse and kids even if they are not aware that they are being recorded. However, the spouse must be prepared to defend this suspicion in court with compelling evidence. Without this, a court will determine the recording was illegal.
It’s also worth noting that it is not illegal, under state or federal law, to use another phone in your home, in the ordinary course of business, to listen in on the conversation.
Before you take action, know the risks.
Confrontation can escalate abuse. If your phone is being monitored, you may put yourself at risk by talking about the abuser in texts or emails, searching for domestic violence or stalking resources, making plans to leave the relationship, or searching for ways to delete spyware from your phone. The safest option may be to use your phone normally and live your life as if nothing is happening until you have a plan to escape. Important conversations regarding the abuser should be conducted on a new device, like a prepaid phone, or in person with people you trust.
If you feel that you are not in a high-risk situation with a controlling partner, another option is to be open with your partner about what is happening. If you have previously cheated on your spouse, your spouse may be rightfully concerned that it is happening again. If this hasn't happened, your partner's behavior may be symptomatic of underlying insecurities or issues in your relationship. In the event that you still want to continue your relationship after being spied on, individual and couples therapy should be considered.
How to remove spyware
Access your phone's settings and look through a list of your phone's apps to see if there are any on your phone that you do not recognize. Do the same with your files app by looking for downloads you don't recognize.
iPhones usually need to be "jailbroken" to install stalkerware. However, there are spyware apps that do not require a phone to be jailbroken, such as mSpy and SpyAdvice. These apps cannot be detected on your phone. Check your purchase history in the App Store to see a complete list of apps that have been downloaded on your phone.
Finding an app on your phone called Cydia is an indicator that your phone has been jailbroken. This app allows users to install software onto jailbroken devices. You can search for this app on your phone, but your phone may still be jailbroken even if this app is not on your phone.
To be completely sure you're not being monitored, you can "unjailbreak" your phone by following these steps. This method will completely wipe your device and restore the factory settings, so be sure to back up your device to avoid losing your photos and documents.
As a less drastic measure, you can also take your phone to an Apple store to have them check it out, but this could be potentially dangerous for someone who is already being stalked.
About the Author
Danielle Mozingo is a law clerk at Smith Dominguez, PLLC and a second-year law student at Campbell University Normal Adrian Wiggins School of Law. During her time at Campbell, Danielle has been involved in a variety of pro-bono projects including the Campbell Law Innocence Project, the Domestic Violence Advocacy Project and the Reentry Project. Danielle has also served as a court advocate for the Safe on Seven Domestic Violence Center in Winston Salem, NC.