This is the Modem World: E-Snooping on Our Loved Ones is Bad. Or is it?

Joshua Fruhlinger
J. Fruhlinger|12.12.12

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This is the Modem World: E-Snooping on Our Loved Ones is Bad. Or is it?

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I recently had the displeasure of consoling a friend about her rocky history with a boyfriend who appeared to be looking outside their relationship for companionship. She said that the man was talking to other women, flirting and even setting up dates to meet up in the future during business trips.

As I told her that no one deserves to be cheated on - You deserve better! - I soon learned that the manner in which she learned that her man was seeking strangers was a curious - and potentially dangerous - sign of our times.

"Was he doing this in front of you?" I asked.

"No, I saw his emails."

Wait a second. Whoa. While this girl had every right to be upset, I thought, the truth is that she was poking around his digital life. There's nothing good about cheating, let's be clear on that, but I have to wonder what the rights and wrongs are when it comes to snooping on others.

"So... you just happened to see his inbox?"

"Oh, I know his password."

Here we go. She was actively seeking out some dirt on the guy. I had to dig deeper.

Turns out that not only did she parse his inbox, but she also looked through the text messages on his iPhone where she found flirtatious bits and even studied his browsing history to discover that he was doing some travel planning to places she'd never heard of.

Sure, it's possible that he was planning a surprise getaway for the two of them, but given the wider context of the emails and texts, it was unfortunately unlikely.

There I was, stuck between making the girl feel justified in her anger over being betrayed and feeling for the dude for being digitally snooped to the core. Yes, he done bad, but hadn't she done bad as well when she cracked into his private iLife?

Back in the day, wives found lipstick on collars, husbands sniffed strange cologne on jackets and numbers dashed inside matchbooks described salacious evenings. But those things were found, not actively sought based on distrust. Maybe some more sleuthy individuals employed private detectives like some film noir turn of romantic events, but for the most part, people had no way of easily snooping on their loved ones' communicative naughtiness.

Nowadays, we have - just behind a password typically handed to us on committed relationship silver platters - access to our better halves' entire social world. One quick look at dating advice sites and one finds stressed-out lovers looking for advice on dirty emails, tawdry Facebook exchanges and lewd SMSes.

I know my wife's iPhone password. I've had to look up directions in emails while she was driving, and she has no reason to be concerned about me seeing what she has going on in there, which, in my estimation, has a lot to do with Tiny Tower and very little to do with other men. Either way, I can't be bothered.

Ever stumble upon your loved one's inbox just sitting there, open on a browser? We all have. Most of us couldn't care less, but it wouldn't be beyond any of us to have stolen a quick glance. Chances are nothing was there, but imagine stumbling upon something titled "See you tonight?"

You would look.

And I have to wonder if that is wrong. On the surface, yes. Yes it is 100 percent wrong to invade the privacy of another person. Nothing about it is right. But in the case of my friend, perhaps when we suspect something is up; a digital folio filled with everything going on in our significant others' lives is just too tempting. Of course, we all hope that we never get to the point of suspecting in the first place.

In the end, it's clear that my friend is in a caustic relationship and should bail at her earliest opportunity, but we all know that relationships aren't so simple. Add in social networking, texting, email and all their surreptitious potential, and we have the recipe for a whole new kind of relationship mistrust.

Cheating is never excusable. But what's the verdict when it comes to snooping on our loved ones? Are we justified if we find exactly what we suspected? Was my friend acting out her insecurities and mistrusts and pushing the dude away until he did exactly what she feared until she found it?

I'll be over here under my rock.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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