I spy, you spy, don’t we all spy?
DJ Billy Gotti has a black T-shirt that reads, in hot pink scrawl, “MySpace ruined my life.”
And though the shirt is a little melodramatic, the spiky-haired 26-year-old says there is a story behind it. He has two MySpace accounts – one for his music as well as a personal page.
“My ex-girlfriend would always check my page,” Gotti said. “And well, I have a lot of female friends, I always have, but she got really jealous when girls would post comments.”
After the two broke up, Gotti discovered that she’d also been checking his voicemail.
“I straight-up asked her (if she was checking my messages). It took awhile but I got it out of her finally.”
“We were really close, I trusted her,” he said about why he had given her his password.
You gotta love technology. Flip open your boyfriend’s cell phone when he goes to the bathroom and scroll through the call log. Type in that password you guessed (after 52 tries) and rummage through your girlfriend’s Hotmail account. Do a quick Google of the cute new guy at work followed by a MySpace search.
Gone are the days of rifling through underwear drawers and shoving your hand under the mattress to get the little black book with DIARY engrossed in gold lettering on the front. Technology has changed the way we snoop. It’s easier; it feels less intrusive, so therefore it must not be wrong. Right?
Not so, says Colorado State University professor Patrick Plaisance. Plaisance, who teaches a media ethics course at CSU, argues just because the way we spy has changed, doesn’t make it right.
“The new media technology allows us to be more intrusive in certain ways, but my caution is that just because it allows new things, doesn’t make it ethically justifiable. Sometimes it does, but just because we can do something doesn’t make it O.K. … We still have a moral obligation to not harm people, to not use deceptive tactics in a gratuitous way.”
In general, Plaisance said, people have relaxed attitudes about their ethical obligation when it comes to online communication. And new technology has caused people to blur the distinction between information and knowledge.
“I can Google someone and get all sorts of information but that doesn’t mean I actually have knowledge about something.”
Dan Barron has been practicing family law for 12 years in the valley. He estimates that in 50 percent of his divorce cases there is some sort of tech-savvy spying going on. Suspicous spouses will check voicemail messages on both home and cell phones or break into e-mail accounts to search for evidence of anything from drugs to extramarital affairs that could become crucial during a custody battle.
“The old thing is hiring the investigator to follow people, but honestly, people can’t afford that – paying them $100 to $200 per hour, how long can you keep up with that?”
Another fairly common occurrence, Barron said, is going online to check out credit card or bank statements, looking for hotel room or any out-of-the-ordinary charges.
Oftentimes when children are exchanged between feuding parents, parents will use a hidden tape recorder to record disparaging remarks by the other person so they can use it in court.
“It’s not illegal,” Barron said, but it would be unethical for an attorney to tell their client to go ahead and record the conversation, Barron said. “If a client does it on their own, it’s fine. It has to do with that expectation of privacy. Do they have that expectation that their conversation will not be recorded?”
As far as checking someone else’s voicemail goes, Barron said it can be more serious than you think.
“It’s harassment, and not only a violation of a restraining order, but violation of the automatic temporary injunctions which come with dissolution of marriage,” he said. “Courts take that stuff very seriously. When you’re checking out someone else’s voicemail, that’s harassment, and even disturbing the peace of the other party, even if they don’t know it’s going on.”
One of the strongest human emotions is jealousy, Barron said. After a seven-year relationship of his own ended, he briefly considered checking her e-mail and trying to see whom she was corresponding with.
“I never did it,” he said, and after the initial panic subsided, he didn’t feel the need to. “Jealousy is an amazing emotion, and you can’t fault the people who do those things initially, but after awhile, if they keep doing it even though they know it’s wrong, that’s a different story.”
There are no statistics that track the spying people do on friends and family members, but if a search on the web is any indication, it’s fairly common. In a March 2004 post on ask.metafilter.com, a woman posts her situation to the world: “Something is going on with my husband – I just know it. A lot of over explaining, weird schedule, and just overall making me very, very uneasy. I’m usually pretty intuitive, so I really sincerely believe that something is up. There’s no history of infidelity or anything like that.”
And people’s advice back? Everything from something as simple as “talk about it,” to “Not the most ethical answer, but have you tried snooping around, or maybe checking up on him when he doesn’t expect it?”
Another person had a recommendation: “If you’re going to snoop, though, remember that credit card statements are available online and cell phone histories can be checked.”
When Dear Abby was asked about her opinion on the privacy of cell phones and other personal items in a recent column she didn’t mince words: “As to that kind of thing happening in more mature relationships, if the level of trust has been so eroded that snooping is necessary, the relationship is already in serious trouble. Also, the person doing the snooping may be guilty of the cheating that he or she is obsessed with discovering. There’s an old saying, ‘A person doesn’t look behind the bedroom door unless he (or she) has stood there in the past.'”
Maybe Googling was the first misstep down a slippery slope. Now you can stalk your not-quite-boyfriend without leaving the comfort of your own home. Simply log onto Google Earth (earth.google.com), type in an address and you can see a satellite image detailed down to the car in the driveway. With the advent of MySpace you can learn a cache of information – everything from someone’s relationship status (swinger, single, in a relationship, married) to their taste in music, movies, books and friends.
Many people interviewed for this story admitted to spying on their children, lovers, spouses or even colleagues, but asked that they not be identified. Others, like Shani Magosky of Edwards, said that as far as spying is concerned when it comes to her marriage – she’d never even consider it. “I have the world’s greatest husband,” she said. “I would never need to go through his things.”
For some the mere suspicion of misconduct is reason enough to start snooping. Will Rice of Edwards said he’d have no problem spying on a significant other if he were ever remotely suspicious that person was cheating – “You bet I’ll be searching her ass out then,” he said.
His friend, Gypsum-resident Daniel Nixon, agreed that it’s O.K. to spy on someone as long as there’s a good enough reason – “like if she’s coming home smelling like soap,” or someone else, he said, though he seemed a little unsure about the basics of e-mailing, let alone breaking into someone’s e-mail account.
“How do you even do e-mail?” he said, laughing. “Where I come from they tie a note to a pigeon and clap their hands.”
New York author Ruth Houston has written a book on infidelity and tips for catching the cheater. Called “Is He Cheating On You? – 829 Telltale Signs,” Houston wrote the book after her husband cheated on her 13 years ago. As she was transcribing interviews from a tape recorder in her office, the device picked up telephone conversations her husband was carrying on in the bedroom, she remembered.
“He was involved with three different women, and there were also conversations with his friends boasting about it,” she said.
She was in complete shock, she said, and when she went out to find books on how to handle the situation, there were none.
“There was a lot of information women need that just wasn’t there.”
It is now. Houston’s book includes a chapter about computers and includes 30 tips for finding evidence of infidelity.
“You should spy if you think something’s going on,” Houston advocates.
But, she warns, you have to be careful about staying within the boundaries of the law.
“There is a lot of spy equipment available to the consumer over the Internet, through spy stores. The problem is most people don’t realize there are very strict laws governing the use of such equipment. The laws in New York state say that if you intercept communication in transit – which applies to telephone communication, Internet communication – you’re in violation of federal wiretapping laws. In New York, you’re also in violation of state laws, that can earn you one – two years in prison.”
Instead, Houston recommends using your own five senses. Some things to look for: if your significant other has moved the computer to a private area of the house, or if you hear frantic mouse clicking when you enter the room, which could be them closing screens they don’t want you to see. Look at the history section on your computer to see what sites they’ve been visiting on the Internet. A dating website is a red flag.
“Or maybe the e-mail account you’ve had together is suddenly password protected … If you have access to the phone bill by reason of the fact that you’re in the home, certainly you’re within your rights to look at the bill.”
Should snoopers feel bad?
“No,” she said. “Snooping or spying may be the only way you’re going to find out. Certainly you don’t want to wait until he’s walking out the door. You don’t want to find out after you’ve contracted a sexually transmitted disease … When you write a check and it bounces, that’s not a good time to find out he spent all the money on another woman.”
Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at email@example.com.