Should your spouse read your email?

Technology now lets everyone have their own online lives – even husbands and wives

Should a husband or wife check their spouse's phone? (AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN)
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Messages circulating on social media in the UAE have a stark warning to spouses who snoop: check your husband or wife’s phone without their permission and you could go to jail. The UAE’s law on privacy doesn’t actually mention couples, but the online conversation was sparked by a lawyer here who clarified that, yes, checking a spouse’s phone without permission would fall under the law.

So far, The National is not aware of any spouses who have been prosecuted. But it raises an interesting question about the proliferation of private spaces, even in an intimate relationship like marriage. It is also a sign of the times.

In the pre-internet and smartphone era (not that long ago, for any millennials reading), a husband and wife shared most things. They shared a bedroom, a house, even a bank account. Perhaps, if they had enough space, the husband might have a “man-cave”, to use the popular parlance, and the wife, after Virginia Woolf, “a room of one’s own”. But beyond their private diaries, there were few private spaces. That was part of the bargain of marriage.

The internet era changed that, in subtle and unsubtle ways that we are still recognising. There are now separate email accounts, Facebook accounts, Instagram, WhatsApp, all of which could be complete private spaces to which the originator alone had access. Smartphones hold thousands of photographs, conversations, maps and more – all hidden from a spouse.

Even those husbands and wives who completely trust their spouse – some even have joint Facebook accounts – will likely have separate emails. (Although one US report from 2014 found more than one quarter of couples had a shared email account.)

How to navigate these new opportunities and dangers are still being negotiated. What happens, for example, if one spouse dies? Email accounts could contain important, even valuable information. Online accounts like iTunes could hold music worth thousands of dirhams. Yet, while some companies like Facebook have policies for the deceased, others like Google do not.

Technology has opened up private spaces even in intimate relationships. As societies, we are still at the beginning of understanding what that means. In the recent past, a spouse could hope to know most things about their partner. Today, there are whole worlds unknown to them.