New York Times September 7, 2006 I Spy; Doesn't Everyone? By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM
FLIP open your husband's cellphone and scroll down the log of calls received. Glance over your teenager's shoulder at his screenful of instant messages. Type in a girlfriend's password and rifle through her e-mail.
There was a time when unearthing someone's private thoughts and deeds required sliding a hand beneath a mattress, fishing out a diary and hurriedly skimming its pages. The process was tactile, deliberate and fraught with anxiety: Will I be caught? Is this ethical? What will it do to my relationship with my child or partner?
But digital technology has made uncovering secrets such a painless, antiseptic process that the boundary delineating what is permissible in a relationship appears to be shifting.
In interviews and on blogs across the Web, people report that they snoop and spy on others — friends, family, colleagues — unencumbered by anxiety or guilt.
"Now we can trace the record of partners' cellphone calls, we can go through all their sent e-mails if we're devious enough and clever enough," said Thomas N. Bradbury, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the Marriage and Family Development Project. "That is fundamentally a new phenomenon under the sun."
Technology "really puts us in a difficult position," he added. "It really demands a lot of us."
There are no statistics that track the spying people do on friends and family members. One study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project last year found that more than half of 1,100 parents surveyed used some sort of monitoring software, which snoops on children's online activity, or an Internet filter, which blocks access to sites deemed inappropriate (and is not the same as snooping).
Among parents, attitudes about prying are changing, according to parenting authorities, who argue that it is an adult's responsibility to check on what children do online and does not violate a child's right to privacy.
"The balance is shifting," said David Walsh, a psychologist and the founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, which studies the impact of electronic media on families. A couple of years ago parents worried about violating their children's trust, he said. "Now the worry is, 'How do I keep my kids out of trouble?' "
Most of the people who readily admitted in interviews to spying on their children, lovers or spouses asked that they not be identified. And in Internet forums, chat groups, blogs and newspaper advice columns, their confessions are anonymous. But they are also plentiful.
"So I snooped through his computer and found e-mails confirming that he'd dated and slept with at least one other girl," reads an anonymous June post at ask.metafilter.com.
One woman said in an interview that she woke up one night to check the cellphone of a man she was dating and that she believes she had good reason: She was suspicious about who he was talking to, closeted in the bathroom, earlier that day. But, said the woman, who works in marketing in Manhattan and who admitted that her search turned up nothing: "No one wants to be a snoop. People think better of themselves."
Maybe Googling your date, a new acquaintance or an incoming boss was the first step down the slippery slope of digital snooping. Now many people use Google Earth (earth.google.com) to see satellite images of a colleague's home, even the car parked in the driveway. They know that in New York City deeds have been scanned and posted to the online city register, Acris (Automated City Register Information System), so you can find out how much your neighbor paid for her house.
A subscription to nexis.com may enable one to learn what political party people are affiliated with, dates of birth and the names of other family members who live with them. And on MySpace, you can learn everything from whether a person is in a relationship, to his or her taste in music, books and friends.
Snooping gets more serious with powerful surveillance software like Spector Pro, which captures every keystroke a computer user types and allows the installer, with a password, to access information about the target user's instant messages, e-mails and Web sites visited. SpectorSoft, the maker of Spector Pro, says it sells 40,000 copies a year, about triple the sales of four years ago, and many parents are customers.
Installing such software on the computer of a person who is unaware of it is illegal in several states, including Maryland and Florida, according to Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer. It is legal in New York and New Jersey. (Parents anywhere can install it legally on their computers to monitor their children.)
"Someone's always looking," said Ms. Aftab, who is the executive director of WiredSafety.org, an online safety and education group, which receives about 1,000 complaints a month, she said, from people who are targets of electronic spying or stalking. "It's so easy and so many people are doing it that a lot of people don't realize how often they're being spied on," she said.
Robert J. Hong, the director of educational technology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said it's another example of the cavalier attitude some young people have toward sharing music online without paying for it or piggybacking on other people's wireless signals.
"For this latest generation, there's an obscure line between lawful behavior and ethical behavior," Mr. Hong said.
Jan Goldman, who teaches ethics and intelligence at the Joint Military Intelligence College in Washington, where real spies are trained, said many people approach spying with "applied situational ethics" — they change the meaning of right and wrong to suit their advantage.
"And that's not ethical," he said. "When you're confronted with something else that you feel is a greater priority, then you are able to trump your ethics."
In interviews, however, most people identified nuances in the propriety of snooping. A number of parents said they not only have a right to check up on their children, but a responsibility to do so because they are their children's protectors.
"I do think parents have to monitor who kids are speaking to and associating with," said Rhett Banning, a television producer in Orlando, Fla. "It's part of parenting." He draws the line at spying on his wife, however, saying his 29-year marriage is rooted in trust.
Some parents say spying is too strong a word to describe the monitoring they do of their children's Internet activity. "Monitoring means you have gone over the basic rules and expectations, and your child knows you might drop in on his blog/cell log/I.M. conversations at any time," wrote Paula Spencer, of Chapel Hill, N.C., the author of "Momfidence!" who said in an e-mail message that she routinely checks on her four children. "Spying is snooping without their knowledge or expectation."
Monitoring encourages a child eventually to self-monitor, she added, while spying implies that you do not trust your child.
Margaret Sullivan, a technology director at Our Lady of the Assumption, a grammar school in Wood-Ridge, N.J., wants to know what is happening in the life of her daughter, Shannon, 15, and she agrees.
"It's a parent's responsibility," Ms. Sullivan said. "I trust her, but she's a teenager and teenagers try things and teenagers explore."
Some experts cautioned that the toll snooping takes on relationships is too high to justify it. Jay Lebow, a clinical professor of psychology at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said parents are overstepping a boundary and jeopardizing trust when they spy on their children, even when they read through their MySpace and Friendster profiles. "It's not your territory," he said. The only times it's warranted, he said, are when you strongly suspect something, like drug use.
Between adults in romantic relationships, the dos and don'ts grow murkier.
Stephen Larkin, an independent publicist in Manhattan, learned the voice mail password of someone he was dating and listened to cellphone messages. He ended the relationship because he did not like what he heard. He said he knew it was wrong to spy and by doing so he felt he lost what he called his "moral high ground." Nowadays he tries to respect other people's privacy, he said, but he cannot quite help running his eyes over friends' electronic devices from time to time.
"A word to the wise," he said. "You leave your BlackBerry out and the screen is there — it's human nature to look."
Brenda Wesp, a mechanical engineer in Orlando, said she has always treated her husband's phone mail and e-mail like postal mail. "If it's not addressed to you, don't open it," she said.
"Unfortunately," she said, "my husband doesn't see it the same way." He sometimes opens her e-mail messages, she said, and that can feel like an invasion of privacy.
In other cases, giving consent to spy becomes a relationship litmus test. Amy Greenspan, a graphic designer in Manhattan, said she opens her fiancé's mail, but not his e-mail — though she occasionally answers his cellphone and responds to instant messages for him (though she said she identifies herself).
But one night, she said, she picked up his cellphone and began a game of scrolling through his address book and deleting other women's phone numbers. "He had to make a case for everybody who stayed," she said.
She added, "I don't think I'd be with somebody that didn't trust me to answer their phone because I'd wonder what they were hiding from me."
For many today, it is better to be safe than sorry. "I'm in the camp that says you really need to use technology," said Ruth Houston, whose first husband cheated on her, she said, inspiring her to write a book, "Is He Cheating on You? 829 Telltale Signs" (Lifestyle Publications, 2003). A chapter about computers includes 30 tips for finding evidence of infidelity.
"People shouldn't feel bad," she said. "You're going to feel worse if one day your husband walks in and asks you for a divorce. You're going to feel worse if he empties out the bank account. You're going to feel worse when you find out you've got an S.T.D. and you don't know where it came from. Get over it."
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company