High-Tech Divorce

The nastiness level of divorces has been going up, thanks to technology, according to the The New York Times Business Section’s Tell-All PCs and Phones Transforming Divorce on Sept 15, 2007.  Bits and bytes are subpoenaed or surreptitiously obtained from cellphones, blackberries and PCs, and used to deadly advantage by plaintiffs and defendants alike in divorce cases.

This can’t be good for the causes of marital therapy or divorce mediation.

On the other hand, private investigators and lawyers make out well.  And all this technology is causing privacy laws to be rewritten.

This story is being written as being about privacy: how technology is increasingly invading privacy, and how our laws are evolving to protect—or not protect— our privacy.

But is it just about privacy?  What about trust?

What’s striking about the article is it’s an equal opportunity horror story.  It’s horrible to find out the awful things your spouse was doing all those years, the article suggests.  Yet it’s equally horrible to find out that your spouse is planting GPS devices on your car or hiring PIs to track down your every little cyber-indiscretion.

So, which is it? Is it worse to be the spy? Or the spied upon?

The subtext of both is victimhood, and an unwillingness to take responsibility. In short, a shortage of trust.

If I conduct a long-term affair, with elaborate attempts to hide it, then basically I’m a schmoe without much moral ground to stand on. If my spouse discovers me, I have little ethical room for indignation.  I have violated her trust.

If I suspect my spouse of conducting an affair, and choose to buy covert screen-copying software or filch her Blackberry rather than directly and calmly confronting her about my suspicion—then I am a sneak and a thief, and have already convicted her in absentia by my decision to go covert.

Some may quibble about the relative nastiness of each side, but basically it’s all ugly. It’s all about mistrust, lying, and the inability to constructively confront.

What it’s not about is privacy laws. Yet that’s the buzz.  Is email admissible in court? If it was a family computer, maybe so; if not, maybe not. Were passwords shared?  Then emails may be admissible.  And so on.

That’s how we get statements like this, from the article:

“If I were to tell you I have a pure ethical conscience over what I did, I’d be lying,” he said. But he also pointed to companies that have Internet policies giving them the right to read employee e-mail messages. “When you’re in a relationship like a marriage, which is emotional as well as, candidly, a business, I think you can look at it in the same way,” he said.

When did a marital  “ethical issue of conscience” become directly comparable to corporate policies on reading employees’ email?

When we started defining issues of ethics and trust solely in terms of issues of the law and privacy, that’s when.

Technology certainly raises interesting issues about privacy, as it does about private property and copyright law, for example.  But when you have a hammer, the world can look like nails.

We have a hammer—technology. The world is starting to look like the nail of the law—the answer to privacy, property rights, and patent issues.  We need to remember there are also screws and glues, not just nails.  There are relationships, trust, respect, virtues, transparency—even marriages. 

If you have to define marriage solely in terms of legal privacy rights, you might as well be describing flood insurance policies.  Same for any relationship.

Privacy matters can sometimes be trivial next to trust matters.
 

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