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The Call-In: Sharing Your Passwords With Your Partner


Time now for The Call-In.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Digital privacy in relationships - sharing passwords or devices with your significant other can be a convenience but at what cost? Last week, we asked listeners to tell us how much of their digital lives they share with their spouse or partner. We heard from many of you. This email from Abby Power in Minneapolis, Minn., sums up many of your experiences. No secret passwords in our house, she said. Myself, my husband and my two teenage boys all share passwords with each other. And we don't violate each other's privacy - fingers crossed that everyone is doing the right thing.

But sometimes, having the keys to your boyfriend's digital kingdom can be a temptation. Becky McDougal of Malden, Mass., had complete access to her fiance of four and a half years' phone until one day when she got a little too curious about something she was really hoping would happen.

BECKY MCDOUGAL: We had just moved into a condo that he bought. And we've had engagement conversations. And I felt like I just want to know. I'm a little bit curious. Are there clues? When is this going to happen?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When was he going to pop the question? You were trying to figure out when that was going to happen.

MCDOUGAL: Right, right. Has anything been been done as far as buying a ring or anything like that? So I, one night, abused my thumbprint access and got into his phone. And I didn't really know what I was looking for. But I found emails that looked like plans for a weekend getaway. And I felt like that was going to be engagement weekend. And so I was getting really excited about it. And it came to the time where I thought we would be leaving and realized it's not happening when I'm asking about - not so subtly - what are our plans? What do we want to do tomorrow? And he - it was very clear nothing was really happening. And so I was a little bit disappointed. But in a turn of events, it did end up being engagement weekend. It was just in our house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So he didn't take you anywhere, but he did pop the question.

MCDOUGAL: He did. So I at least figured out the date. But I did fess up afterwards and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you confessed?

MCDOUGAL: I did. I confessed. I felt like it was the right thing to do because having that digital access, that thumbprint, is a big trust. And I did know that I broke that. And I could've really ruined something big for him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how did he react when you told him that you had been snooping through the phone?

MCDOUGAL: When he - his reaction - I don't think he was mad. But certainly, we both talked about it and agreed. I did not want that access again. I'm a really nosy person, clearly. And I don't want to spoil another big surprise like that ever again. So - and he felt like, I don't really want to give you that access again. There's nothing that you really need in there. So it did change things in our relationship there. But we certainly both trust each other. And there's nothing I would hide from him anyways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let me understand. So now you don't have access to his phone anymore.

MCDOUGAL: Correct, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you feel about this now when you look back on what happened?

MCDOUGAL: I feel like it was all fun and games until it wasn't, you know, and I feel like I'm not proud of what I did. And I think that's important to be honest about that. And it still is a breach of trust to go and snoop around and dig for that when I should've just trusted it's coming, and it's going to happen in a beautiful way no matter what.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Becky and her fiance are getting married, despite the digital transgressions, this June.

NANCY BAYM: You know, I taught interpersonal communication for about 25 years. And I heard that line - we share everything. We have no secrets - so often. And you know what? It's not true. It's never true. There's all kinds of things that we don't tell our partners just because we love them, and we want to be kind to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Nancy Baym of Microsoft Research. She's author of the book "Personal Connections In The Digital Age." She says how digital access is negotiated between partners depends on their expectations. And those can change overtime.

BAYM: I don't think that it's necessarily something where on one day you can say, OK, here's our rules. And you never ever have to revisit it again because you might find that down the road, something you thought would bother you didn't, or something that you thought would not bother you actually bothered you a lot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And if you screw up and maybe get a little too snoopy...

BAYM: Probably, the best strategy is not to be blaming the technology and not necessarily to be blaming the other person but to be looking for - what is the underlying reason that this person wanted to do that in the first place? And what kinds of relational concerns or issues is that pointing out?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are broader issues, though, when you are navigating digital privacy and relationships.

WOODROW HARTZOG: Often, the only threat that we think about is, would this person want to log in and snoop through all my things? But that's not the only thing that can go wrong when you share your username or password with someone.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Woodrow Hartzog is a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University.

HARTZOG: The person that you trust might be totally trustworthy but just make a mistake by clicking on the wrong link that downloads a virus or getting hacked somehow and compromising your username and password without even meaning to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he says, don't feel bad if your spouse or partner doesn't give you total access.

HARTZOG: Just because you don't share anything doesn't mean you're trying to hide anything. And I think the notion that privacy is about hiding things is really outdated in the modern world. And we've got a lot of other things to worry about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Woodrow Hartzog, professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Next week on The Call-In, there's a massive nursing shortage across the country. Depending on where you live, nurses can be in short supply. We want to hear from people in the field. Are you a nurse who's seeing your industry change? Are you at the end of your career? We're just getting started. We want to hear the challenges you're facing. Call in at 202-216-9217. Be sure to include your full name, where you're from and your phone number, and we may use it on the air. That's 202-216-9217.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.