Extremely Online

I Know Where You Were Last Night

Apps like Find My have normalized location-sharing, but keeping tabs on someone doesn’t always keep them close.

Every evening, I tuck myself into bed and check on my Sims. By this, I, of course, mean I load up Find My and make sure the seven people with whom I share locations “indefinitely” are in their rightful places. My sister is at home, likely curled up with her dog. My friend who lives down the street is down the street. My boyfriend is right next to me, the app confirms. All is well.

I’m not alone in this. Recent pop culture moments have revealed the ubiquity of this technology, from Taylor Swift’s “The Black Dog,” in which she sings about tracking her ex after their split, to a memorable breakup on Love Is Blind Season 6, instigated after a man was tracked to another woman’s house in the wee hours of the morning.

However, in the years since location-sharing was introduced, the initial convenience has, for some, become a curse, connecting people with far more data than they’re accustomed to dealing with. Hannah, a 31-year-old from Brooklyn, was using Find My to locate her AirPods when, like Swift, she ended up seeing her former partner. Twenty-four hours after their breakup, the ex already appeared to be spending the night at an unfamiliar location. “It is information I should not have had access to,” Hannah says in retrospect.

Location-monitoring is all but expected in relationships nowadays, in part because it comes in so many forms — from Life360 to Snap Map. Whether they mean to or not, users are constantly signaling their availability or where they are in real time. Instagram beams out a bright green dot next to my username whenever I’m scrolling; Facebook Messenger allows me to toggle sharing my whereabouts. It’s so easy, people may not even know when and where they’re doing it. Just ask 31-year-old Carlotta*, whose ex seemed to have no idea he had turned location services on for Facebook Messenger while they were dating.

Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto/Getty Images

“It was definitely by accident,” she told me. “He would message me, ‘Just leaving my house for work. What are you doing tonight?’ I would see in his location services that he was somewhere completely different.” She used this information to confront him, and he admitted to sleeping with someone else.

For those with an iPhone, one location-sharing feature, Find My Friends, dominates. Apple launched its standalone app in 2011, and by 2015, it came automatically with new iPhones. Since it merged with Find My iPhone and Find My Mac in 2019, Find My has been a one-stop shop for all users’ surveillance needs. Even when I’m not actively checking in on my friends and family, my iPhone is: I’ll reliably get an alert when my boyfriend (or, really, his AirPods) have been near me for a while.

Just last week, my friend Selina Scharr, a 31-year-old from Brooklyn, dropped her dog off at the vet for a stressful surgery. After an emotional goodbye, she left, only to receive an alert from the AirTag she keeps on her dog’s collar. Basil, it warned her, had been “left behind.”

“Jeez, Apple, way to make me cry this morning,” she texted our group chat. (Basil is recovering happily at home.)

This technology has changed everything. I no longer have to ask my friend for their ETA or wonder if my parents are available for a phone call. I can just check in on their real-time location, a capability previously associated with intelligence agencies and covert criminals. What is, for all intents and purposes, stalking, has become a casual part of everyday familial, romantic, and platonic relationships — and turned many with formerly healthy boundaries into lurkers in the process.

“My mom asked to share location with me because she lives alone and she said it made her feel safe,” says Lauren, a 29-year-old from New York who asked to be identified by her first name only. “Then cut to her tracking me sleeping at a rando’s apartment in Manhattan and calling every single one of my friends thinking I was dead in the East River. I was getting laid.”

“Cut to [my mom] tracking me sleeping at a rando’s apartment in Manhattan and calling every single one of my friends thinking I was dead in the East River. I was getting laid.”

To share locations in a relationship is to put your cards on the table. Those who do so should ostensibly feel assured their significant other wouldn’t dare cheat on them under Find My’s watchful eye. Of course, despite all this, the app can’t actually ensure fidelity, leading to a number of messy breakups.

“My mom is not tech-savvy in the least [and] has all Apple products,” says Vanessa*, a 35-year-old who lives in France. “I was at a wedding and got three missed calls from Dad in quick succession. He's frantic, asking if I know why Mom is in Arizona.” Turns out, she says, her mom had gone there to rekindle a 12-year affair following a three-year break.

Cheating partners getting caught on Find My is almost cliché at this point, but an over-awareness of location-sharing means others are just getting caught subverting it. Thirty-four-year-old Mandi Awadis, who lives in California, was confident while sharing locations with her boyfriend of two years. She had never seen him go anywhere suspicious or be anywhere he shouldn’t during his late nights working in nightlife — until Awadis found out he had been circumventing this by bringing other women to his workplace. (One of his paramours had told her.)

It’s a vicious circle, one that only increases the perceived need for this technology: A partner attempting to “outsmart” it will only help the other justify their continued surveillance. While there’s a certain sheepishness that comes with calling a partner out after, say, reading their text messages, there’s no such bashfulness with location-sharing, since both parties have presumably agreed to be monitored.

It’s a vicious circle, one that only increases the perceived need for this technology: A partner attempting to “outsmart” it will only help the other justify their continued surveillance.

But the surveiler isn’t always in the right. The act of checking up on friends’ locations treads a fine line between caring and controlling. Just because someone can monitor the locations of everyone in their orbit doesn’t mean they should, and just because the apps have become normalized doesn’t mean the behavior itself is normal. Instead, it’s technology preying on human beings’ worst impulses.

Vanderpump Rules’ Scheana Shay’s excessive use of Find My — 56 friends and counting — may have exposed Katie Maloney’s hookup, but Shay was equally criticized for what many felt was an invasion of privacy. Other Find My subjects feel similarly: “I do not share my location anymore because I had a toxic group of friends that tracked everywhere I went,” says Helen*, a 24-year-old from California. “Once they asked me where I was — I was at a boy’s house — I lied and said I was at the library studying.” She knew they didn’t like the boy she was dating and she wanted to avoid interrogation. Instead, she got an attack.

“They proceeded to track me and bombard me with texts calling me a liar,” she adds. “I did not owe them any explanations of my whereabouts.”

Israa Nasir, an author and psychotherapist who speaks frequently about modern relationships, is against the practice in romantic partnerships. People owe each other transparency through communication, she says, not surveillance. If you need to location-share to feel at peace, that’s a bad sign.

“That always indicates a level of insecurity that I’m bringing into the relationship,” says Nasir, who advocates for turning the feature off in all situations — except, she concedes, for safety reasons like traveling alone. If you insist on sharing “indefinitely,” she suggests checking in with yourself regularly to ensure healthy boundaries aren’t crossed. “If your behavior is changing toward your partner, or as a parent, you’re taking that surveillance one step further,” she says.

Although I still like to say goodnight to my Sims, I use Find My much less obsessively than I used to, but not because I’m actively resisting its siren call. Rather, constant awareness of my friends’ and family’s locations over the years has revealed their banality. Case in point: A few weeks ago, my friend and I checked in on our boyfriends while they were away on the same bachelor weekend. We loaded up the app, hoping to catch them in some illicit spot we could jokingly tease them about later. Their two dots populated, revealing that after months of planning and a flight to Miami they were finally letting loose and going to… CVS. Location-sharing promises constant visibility. Most times, however, there’s just simply nothing to see.

*Pseudonyms were given where requested for purposes of anonymity.