Spyware, incognito mode and other subversive technologies

Published in Online Affairs Practitioners by Dr Bernie Hogan of The University of Oxford on October 20th 2021

What are subversive technologies?

Clients and their partners may vary considerably in how technically sophisticated they are. This may pose a problem in the relationship as it could prompt one partner to employ technology to gain some sort of autonomy or control over the relationship. This might be through monitoring the other partner’s behaviour or evading the other partner’s surveillance. These practices tend to fall under the notion of ‘subversive technologies’.

Subversive technologies are often used in contexts where there is an imbalance of power. For example, a whistle-blower might use subversive technology to leak documents about their employer or a spy might use surveillance software to uncover secret plans in another country. While most subversive technologies wouldn’t be designed for intimate relationships, this doesn’t mean they aren’t used. The use of spyware isn’t especially common in relationships, though it stands to reason that it would be overrepresented in couples in therapy.

Subversive technologies are often used in contexts where there is an imbalance of power

It would be impossible to provide an exhaustive list of ways in which partners might seek to evade or monitor each other’s behaviour. Regardless, there are some general points to take into consideration. Below is a summary of some of the broad classes of subversive technologies, which should help practitioners to start a line of questioning that can situate technology use within the context of discovering the dynamics of the relationship.

Surveillance technologies

Spyware

Spyware is a deliberate attempt to create an asymmetry of awareness in the relationship. The partner installing spyware can view keyboard strokes, watch entire screens, surreptitiously enable webcams (on some computers) and review online activity. If the spyware is effective, the other partner should have no awareness of this. Spyware can destroy trust in a relationship and is evidence that the offending partner doesn’t value the other person’s autonomy. It’s worth considering, however, that an accusation that another person is using spyware might not be verified and the accuser might be paranoid. If there’s no proof of spyware, it’s worth encouraging the person to take their computer to a specialist to check. For more information, see our ‘what is spyware and when is it OK to use it?’ page.

Monitoring practices

Our digital lives leave traces behind. Most websites leave small messages (called ‘cookies’) in our browser for later retrieval and the browser itself leaves a history of which pages have been viewed. Someone might not even need spyware to see this information. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with viewing a history of website visits, it’s not a common activity. However, the act of doing it may suggest that a partner is nosy. Do they suspect something? Are they trying to hold something over the other person’s head? Monitoring can indicate curiosity or it can indicate a lack of trust. Letting both partners know what can be monitored helps them establish reasonable practices. Research undertaken in 2010 suggested that up to 44% of people in a relationship will monitor some aspect of the other person’s digital life at some point. Only a tiny fraction of this involves spyware (less than 2%) or impersonating them (less than 1%) but a large share involves reading emails or texts that are accessible to the other person.

Up to 44% of people in a relationship will monitor some aspect of the other person’s digital life at some point

Whether a partner is installing spyware or simply monitoring the chats and habits of another person, there is at least an issue with boundaries to be discussed. While some partners might think it is only fair that they get to see what the other person is doing, this line of argumentation can undermine the importance of personal autonomy and healthy boundaries.

Evasive technologies

Incognito modes.

Since people’s online behaviour can be tracked, many people opt to browse in a secure fashion. Secure private browsing (sometimes called incognito mode) is a way to ensure that there’s no history of what’s being browsed. There’s nothing inherent in incognito mode that is an issue; however, if it’s used as part of an arms race (where one partner monitors internet history and the other uses incognito mode to evade) then there’s obviously a problem to be addressed. Extreme versions of incognito mode include ‘Tor’ (a highly anonymous browser) and ‘TAILS’ (a completely private operating system loaded from a USB key). If a partner is using these technologies, they are often for a specific purpose and it may be worth asking about what purpose they have and whether they are necessary.

Self-destructing messengers.

Self-destructing messengers are an increasingly common evasive technology. Snapchat is an example of this kind of technology. Messages, including photos and videos, don’t last: they can be viewed for a certain amount of time before they become irretrievable. Even trying to take a screenshot alerts the other person. Like incognito modes, the mere use of these technologies isn’t a problem. However, if one partner is concerned about infidelity and there are accounts on these programs that the other partner doesn’t want to identify, this is probably something to discuss in a session.

Privacy enhancing technologies.

Technologies such as the “disconnect.me” browser add-on and various virus scanners are part of a healthy approach to taking control over one’s digital footprint. These are rarely of concern except when a partner suggests they are using them to guard against another partner. This is then a symptom of a lack of trust to be explored in sessions.

In most cases, we can say that it isn’t the technology that’s a problem but how it’s used. On the one hand, these technologies are sometimes designed for uses that undermine trust in the relationship. On the other, some individuals are particularly privacy oriented. They don’t want corporations or the state to monitor and mine their information.

In most cases, we can say that it isn’t the technology that’s a problem but how it’s used

This is perfectly reasonable and some would even suggest it is important. In the case of evasive technologies, the challenge is to determine whether:

  1. the individual is using these for reasonable personal purposes but doesn’t want others monitoring out of a sense of personal privacy or,
  2. whether the individual is using these in ways that undermine the relationship and simply trying not to get caught.

If the client using evasive technologies provides a reasonable explanation for their use, pressing might run the risk of actually creating tension where there was none. On the other hand, if the client using evasive technologies acts angrily or defensively, it’s worth considering further how they may be part of a larger set of issues between the relationship partners.

To see the full list of research references which have informed the content on this page, please see our research references section.

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