The phone raid is a uniquely modern heist. Inside every person’s phone is a treasure trove of data in one single place: habits, thoughts, likes, routines, desires, purchases, contacts and connections that tell us everything we want to know about a person, and more than plenty we don’t.
But snooping on someone’s device is also a truly desperate, misguided act. Not because it’s a privacy violation at the deepest level — it most certainly is — but because doing so reveals a far more uncomfortable truth about human pairings. None of us really knows the person we sleep next to. And turning to a phone’s contents is a dangerous game that may not unmask more than the fact that we’re all just imperfect bundles of flesh, doing our best, without ill intent. It can be an innocent surface swim through a partner’s silly habits, or it can be a deep dive into the midnight zone, a place where no light has ever been shone into the human psyche. Shudder.
In a good relationship, though, this zone provokes either no discomfort at all or a comfortable co-existence with the unknown. But when you’re with someone you’re on the fence about, maybe because of a rocky start, rocky middle or rocky everything, maybe because of past dishonesty or multiple warning signs, the unknown is a terrifying abyss. Even when things are great, sometimes your curiosity or self-destructive impulses get the best of you, and before you know it, it’s 3 a.m. and you’re 71 weeks deep in his Twitter likes.
So what, exactly, is someone hoping to find when they crack a phone? Two recent examples demonstrate precisely what.
Take one: A woman whose relationship began with betrayal, but had since moved on to smoother sailing, found herself still troubled by the incident. When she realized she could guess his Facebook password, she jumped. She found a troubling but not totally devastating tidbit: He’d asked for bikini pics from a random woman. She was now inordinately tempted with the ability to break in and out of his internet life with ease, and so she did. Every time she looked, she found more of the same: conversations with new and different women on text or Skype that violated their exclusivity. Eventually they split up, and upon parting he revealed another cheating incident his phone hadn’t coughed up.
Perhaps worse, though, is that she went on to keep snooping in future relationships. Another revealed more cheating, but in the third, there was no cause for alarm. But now, because she knows it’s “an effective way of revealing dishonesty,” she can no longer break the habit, even when it’s not warranted.
Another: A married woman writes to an advice columnist that during rough times in her marriage, she journals in emails to herself her various complaints, big and small, about her husband’s habits, which range from petty to large. One day while using her phone for maps in the car, he pulls up her email and sees an entry from herself, to herself, titled “relationship complaints.” Getting a face full of her worst feelings about him, which she intended to work through on her own, and wait to bring up the more reasonable ones when they were in a better place, deeply hurt his feelings and made him feel unwanted and unloved to a degree far beyond anything the messages revealed.
The impulse to snoop is, of course, understandable. What women or men are looking for when they do so seems obvious: infidelity. But that’s not always it. Sometimes it’s just the desire to get into someone’s head and find out where they are, particularly if you feel distant or are facing heavy conflict.
But the risk is high: Dive in, and you may find benign but uncomfortable truths (he’s just really into porn!). Or, your worst fears confirmed: flings, bad feelings, a secret family, a second identity, smaller transgressions that add up to a false relationship. Or maybe just something that really sucks but isn’t all that scandalous: They don’t feel the same way you do; they’re starting to be into someone else; they’ve clearly lost that loving feeling.
A phone’s contents, of course, are not a true indication of a person’s truest self any more than their record collection. It’s an imperfect mass of information. When I was bored and trapped in a corporate, soul-sucking job, I used to plan out elaborate vacation packages to far-flung destinations, tacking on ridiculously priced extras like guided tours of the Nile or world cruises. Sometimes I would spend hours reading extensive travel blogs about selling everything and prowling the world solo. Sure, I wanted to travel more, but if my boyfriend had dug in and landed on this stuff, he might’ve taken away the wrong idea about my seeming wanderlust — that I wanted to get away from him and what we had and where we were. The reality: I just hated that fucking job. But it would’ve never been evident from the search results alone.
Still, a phone raider is looking for two things: continuity and consistency of stated activity and real activity. They want to know you are who you say you are, you do what you say they do, you feel what they say you feel. And that you aren’t spending all your downtime chasing tail, obviously.
But such bounty gives with one hand and takes away with the other. For everything you think you’re discovering by raiding a partner’s phone, you’re also opening up a Pandora’s box of red herrings to grapple with, probably to your demise. Because remember, by the time you’re doing it, you’re already fucked.
I polled online friends and acquaintances to find out where they’d go if they were pulling a phone raid, didn’t have much time and needed to confirm someone’s aim wasn’t so true. Their answers ranged from the obvious to the obscure. Some said texts, Facebook messages, Instagram likes, or dating or hookup apps like Grindr and Tinder (whose existence on their phones at all might be a red flag). Email, Facebook Messenger, Instagram DMs, Twitter DMs. Some said internet history, or Amazon purchases, ostensibly looking for gifts. Uber and Lyft are great apps for discovering where someone’s been, as is a map history. Venmo might reveal payments to a secret lover.
But some were far more clever than even I had thought of.
How about their recently deleted photos? Did you know iPhones keep a temporary album of those?
Or the chat function on apps like Words With Friends?
Did you know there’s a fake calculator app that’s actually a secret stash of photos?
And how about email drafts? That’s a less likely spot to look, but the folder can reveal any number of almost-sents. Siri, even from an unlocked phone, may accidently reveal whom you called or texted last or the most.
While all of this presents a kind of transgressive thrill on the level of some secret detective work, particularly if it’s done in the interest of so-called justice, it should also give us pause. There’s an oft-repeated truism that comes up anytime people start talking about raiding someone’s personal shit (phone, computer, nightstand) to find out if they’re cheating: If you have to look, you already know the answer. The answer, in this case, is not that they really are cheating, per se, it’s if you have to violate your partner’s privacy to get the truth because you cannot ask them directly and expect to get an honest response, then there is no trust. And without trust, there is no relationship. So if you’re about to raid a phone, do yourself a favor and just break up. That way you both have your dignity.
This is true, but it’s also kinda bullshit, for all sorts of reasons. Yes, most rational people in good relationships don’t end up staring at a napping man on a couch, his phone nearby on the floor, and consider placing his sleeping thumb on that home button to unlock it without waking him up. Or cracking into a phone with a password you were given in confidence or magically guessed. It’s a sign things have eroded badly. But sometimes, you really just need to fucking know.
I’m reminded of Dan Savage’s take on the practice of snooping. He more or less argues that it’s a bad idea, unless of course you find a real something. The question that remains for all of us is what qualifies as a something. Is it a “small fudge” from years ago in spite of an overwhelming commitment to your relationship? Or is it a whopper of a deal-breaker that justifies the act?
Savage writes in one advice column to that effect:
I’m generally if inconsistently anti-snooping. It can create unnecessary drama, it signals to your partner that you’ve got trust issues, and you can discover things you might be better off not knowing. But, hey, sometimes snoopers find out about secret second families or crazy sexual risk-taking or donations to right-wing orgs — things they needed to know about people they needed to dump.
The problem, of course, is you don’t know what you’ll find until you start snooping. That means that you better know what exactly you think you’ll find, and be prepared to lose a perfectly imperfect decent person by bypassing a conversation and letting those chips fall where they may. They may have been plotting to cheat or leave you and steal all your money.
In which case, maybe check the Notes app. No one expects you to look there.