Digital Snooping for the Masses

Interesting article from The New York Times:

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.

Posted on September 8, 2006 at 12:39 PM17 Comments


Anonymous September 8, 2006 1:43 PM

Anxiety and guilt need not be directly related to the propensity to snoop on loved ones. The antiseptic quality afforded to the act by technology is no different from the mother who searched kids rooms while the child is at school. Whether she feels guilt or anxiety is quite separate from her knowing that disclosing the act has negative contingencies that reduce its likelihood. The nature of social relationships, therefore, are unchanged by the availability of additional avenues for clandestine data gathering.

runcible September 8, 2006 1:59 PM


Is that really how you communicate normally, or are you trying out your new dictionary?

Koray September 8, 2006 2:09 PM

Why is the article mixing searching through ‘private’ data like phone call logs, phone messages behind pin codes, email, etc. with obviously public data like your profile on myspace, what can be googled about you, etc.? They seem to treat them the same.

I also don’t understand how technology removes the guilt. To me it’s equally invasive to read somebody else’s diary in any format. It surely can make it easier (but not always, e.g. passwords), but the guilty feeling afterwards should be the same.

Dewey September 8, 2006 2:13 PM

Fundamentally I agree with “Anonymous” above. For example, deeds have always (well, at least since before my parents were born) been public record and therefore you can find out what your neighbor paid for their house. The difference now is that the cost of the information is so much lower than people often don’t stop to consider it.

Wherever the line falls, I think expectations are key. The largest issues seems to be when someone’s expectations of privacy are invalidated and it matters little whether those are implicit (I assume my diary is private) or explicit (you’ve promised not to snoop).

Part of the changes in the information age is that peoples expectations are being redefined.

Whether or not you monitor someone elses behavior (i.e. trust) leads to different issues. Paraphrasing what Bruce says, it’s all about the tradeoffs.

If I keep checking on my girlfriend to make sure she’s not cheating she probably won’t start cheating without me knowing it but she just might dump me because she doesn’t think I trust her enough — and she’s got a point.

Likewise with my kids, telling them that I’m going to monitor their ‘net is the same as telling them I don’t trust them to make the right choices unless they know that I’m going to find out about them. Some people think this teaches them to self monitor. Others say it leads to an “it’s only wrong if I’m caught” attitude and therefore promotes situational ethics.

In either case if they don’t want to be caught they’ll go check out porn at a friends house who’s parents don’t monitor.

cmills September 8, 2006 3:07 PM

@ all the kids posting dumb stuff like:

“First! w00t!”

Is that really how you communicate normally, or are you trying out your new dictionary?”

Quit cluttering up the boards with your childish bullshit.

J Smith September 8, 2006 3:43 PM

@Anonymous (2nd posting)

I don’t fully agree with your comments.

It seems to me that people do behave a bit differently in the way they use electronic information processing systems compared to paper and photographs.

A few examples:

a) You are with a friend who is browsing the Net and they have to go away for a few minutes. They do not lock their PC. You have a quick peek in their browser cache to see what kinds of interests they have. Potentially, this will reveal a lot of personal information. No how about the paper equivalent? Would you be prepared to rifle through you friends mail on a whim? Apart from the fact that there is more effort and risk involved, most people have a taboo about opening other people’s mail but I suspect less are worried about opening other people’s electronic mail. It’s just so easy to do. It’s also easy to take copies of electronic data whereas stealing peoples mail and personal papers is risky and breaks normal standards of behaviour for the majority.

b) I knew someone who used to cheat on his wife quite a bit and he liked mobile phones with the latest gizmos. He sent and received lots of messages and pictures that might end his marriage. Ahah! you say; does he know about the risk that his wife might peek at the phone? Yes he did. His solution was to keep two phones, one for normal stuff that he would leave around the house and another carefully kept away from his wife that she did not know about. The second phone was used for his extra-marital pursuits. Perhaps I’m wrong but I’ve never heard of such brazen risk taking using the old-fashioned paper post.

c) Lots of people have other identities and sometimes even other online lives. This isn’t really new e.g. in past days you might have been be a member of a gang or club that did things that required a bit of discretion. I’d argue that it is much easier to do a bit of fantasising online.

d) Lastly, people tend to be a bit braver when they are anonymous (or at least think they are anonymous). I suspect that most of the people who do flame wars wouldn’t say boo in real life.

Next time you flame someone, try imagine saying it to their face first. Would you?

rhandir September 9, 2006 7:59 AM

@Dewey, who wrote:
“In either case if they don’t want to be caught they’ll go check out porn at a friends house who’s parents don’t monitor.”

True, but different levels of monitoring are appropriate for different maturity levels. See the article titled “The Super Secret All Powerful Method To Protect Our Children From The Dangers Of The Internet” on (link below)

Here’s a sample of that sysadmin’s advice:

“So, as a good citizen of my town, state, nation and world, I would like to give you all the super secret method to protect your children from the dangers and images on the internet. From pornography and predation. From immorality and immodesty. From distraction and diseased minds. It is not 100% accurate, but it is vastly closer than any law, any technology, and any censorship that has yet to be developed.

And it is free.

First. Go into your son or daughter’s room.

Second. Disconnect the computer. Be careful to note where the cables connect, if you’re not familiar with them.

Third. Bring the computer downstairs.

Fourth. Go back to your son or daughter’s room. Take the desk the computer was on.

Fifth. Set the computer and desk up in your living room. It should be angled so that wherever you sit when you’re watching television, you have a view of the screen. Make certain the child cannot easily block the screen with their body.

Sixth. Verify everything is working.

Now, you’re probably going to want to invest in two good pairs of noise canceling headphones. The first should be set up at your child’s computer, so they can listen to their music, do their homework or play their games without being distracted by your television watching or other downstairs activities.

The second is for you, so you can watch TV while they’re screaming at you for being such a heartless monster — don’t you trust them? Don’t you care? I hate you! ”

for the full text and discussion.


Jason September 9, 2006 8:41 AM

This is a tough issue; however I guess I fall into what the author referred to as ‘situational ethics’. Should I have kids one day, I fully plan on keeping a close eye on what they’re doing online. I feel that I can ethically do this on several levels:

1) It’ll be my computer gear that they’re using (they won’t have paid for it)

2) They’ll fully know that I’m watching. As they grow in maturity, my watching will grow less frequent because they’ll earn my trust

3) The net can be a very dangerous place. There are many traps for the unwise. It’s my job to help protect them until they know how to deal with those things

I would argue that the ‘ethics’ don’t change when the situation comes to a wife or significant other… The difference for ‘ethics’ is the amount of ‘responsibility’ in the situation. I have a much higher burden of responsibility for protecting my children than I do for my wife. That (to my mind) deeply influences the amount of ‘spying’ that I can ethically do.

And really, is this too much different than the neighborhood grapevine? I learned as a kid pretty quickly that there is ALWAYS someone watching, and they’ll tell my parents if I step too far out of line.

To summarize: ‘Am I allowed to ethically spy on others?’ isn’t the highest question we need to answer here. There are other questions involved.

elegie September 9, 2006 9:01 PM

It could be said that monitoring or snooping on your kids is very different than doing the same to another adult. That can be a significant difference, although it is not the only factor.

J. Siren September 10, 2006 7:12 AM

elegie: I’d say the difference is that a parent is responsible for their child. A child is supposed to be developing the skills and knowledge required to be responsible for themself – that’s where the adult is needed for support and guidance. That’s why a parent has the obligation to be aware of what their children are doing, whereas an adult person is supposed to be able to care for themself, and therefore granted a greater right to privacy.

Greg September 10, 2006 3:31 PM

If your kids are surfing for porn, you failed them a long, long time ago. Confusing support and guidance with snooping, spying on your partner, are just ways of blaming them for your mistakes.

Is it any wonder that we and our governments behave the same?

Anonymous September 10, 2006 10:22 PM

USB key (non-magnetic media) with an encrypted volume accessed via a LiveCD. Just check for a physical keylogger device, which is foiled by on-screen keyboard.

agent99 September 14, 2006 1:20 AM

Very nice thought provoking article. I have to agree with you on how times have changed where it seems we now live in a permanent surveillance society.

Even the boardroom is no longer safe.

Rookie Step Dad December 27, 2006 10:02 PM

My soon-to-be stepdaughter (16 y.o.) accidently dropped a note in my car that I found a week later. It contained a list of “achievements” from the past 12 months. Some were innocuous, but others discussed having oral sex (giving and getting), getting naked with boys (who she named), smoking pot, drinking and getting drunk, and several instances of “hooking up” with boys. Should I show the note to my fiance, return it to her daughter (with or without comment), or simply shred it and forget I ever saw it? Please give me your thoughts. Thanks.

Horndog January 29, 2007 4:47 AM

at 16 she is probably old enough to make the decisions herself as to what and how she wants to explore herself with regards to her sexuality, so long as she is being safe (i know a woman that got aids at 18) and respecting herself in the process…shred it and forget you saw it…after all your fiance may well already be aware of her daughters activites (maybe not the details) and ensured she is doin it safely.

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