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The Jewish Ethicist - I Spy

The Jewish Ethicist - I Spy

Can I spy on my spouse and monitor his internet use?


Q. I'm very concerned about the internet habits of my spouse. There are so many immodest sites and stories of intimate chats. Is it ethical for me to use clandestine means to monitor internet use?

A. Certainly we hear many dismaying stories of relationships strained by internet use. This includes not only "adult" sites but also internet friendships that sometimes seem to crowd out domestic intimacy. It is understandable why someone would want to monitor spouse internet habits, if only to be reassured that everything is fine.

We seem to find conflicting sources in the Talmud regarding the desirability of such monitoring. On the one hand, we find that the Talmud considers the fear of discovery to be a valuable and desirable aid in helping people overcome temptation. While Jewish law forbids a man and woman who are not nuclear family members to be together in a secluded place, the Talmud tells us that if there is a door open to a public thoroughfare it is permitted. While it is relatively unusual for someone to barge in unannounced, the very possibility that this could occur is considered enough to remind the couple of the need for modesty. (1)

Yet we seem to find the opposite point of view in the following passage: "Seven things Rabbi Akiva instructed his son Rabbi Yehoshua: . .Don't enter your house suddenly, so much the more your friend's house." (2) Another passage counts entering suddenly into one's house among acts which are "hateful". (3)

The great early authority Rabbi Shmuel bar Avraham explains that sudden approach should be avoided because one's household members may be engaged in some private activity. (2) It seems from this that it is wrong to create the threat of sudden entry to deter the negative kind of private activities.

One thing we can notice right away is that neither of these sources refers to totally clandestine observation, only to the possibility of sudden discovery. It would seem that totally secret surveillance would be considered a breach of privacy as well as a breach of trust. At the very least any means of supervision used should be known to the family member. Even when the possibility of sudden entry is considered a positive force, this is because it deters the harmful behavior in the first place, not because it enables us to catch perpetrators red-handed.

In my opinion, there is no real contradiction between these two sources. For most kinds of improper behavior, the possibility that someone could arrive suddenly is a deterrent even if the person gives a brief warning. Again, the objective is not to catch people in the act but only to deter them and remind them that their behavior could be observed or perhaps merely inferred. The conclusion is that it is a good check on misbehavior to know that someone could come on very short notice, but without barging in.

I think that totally clandestine means are inappropriate for any family members. For young children, who need a great deal of supervision and are often even grateful for it, there is nothing wrong with installing some kind of monitoring software, but they should be notified in advance. This is an educational step only when you explain to them that the object is not to catch them in misbehavior but rather as an aid to keep them on the right track.

With regard to a spouse, I would consider even announced surveillance an absolute last resort when the person recognizes there is a problem with his or her behavior. As a monitoring strategy, the best thing is just to pop in every so often when your spouse is using the computer. Don't tiptoe, but approach normally, knock briefly and come in. This kind of habit communicates positive concern, not negative suspicion.

For the same reason I also recommend that all spouses, and especially husbands, be proactive in forestalling such worries by using the computer in a place which is easily accessible and being accepting and understanding about occasional kibitzing. Again, recognize that this shows love and concern. This was discussed in more detail in a previous column.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 81a. (2) Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 12a (3) Babylonian Talmud Nida 16b

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

November 10, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Anonymous, November 15, 2007 3:58 AM

I disagree. Internet relationships are among the most common of all affairs.
The internet is used most often for the beginning of inappropriate
relationships and then later the planning of affairs and meetings. Jewish
law forbids these activities. So, if a spouse feels his or her spouse is
being inappropriate do you not agree that the secrecy involved in these
activities would continue? That is the great thing about the internet!
Spying should be a last resort. Spouses are not going to usually be honest
during such times during their lives. Secondly, don't enter your house
suddenly.... and to give warning. Look at the number of spouses that are
caught in the act by a spouse due to their private activity with another
person. When you discuss a breach of privacy and trust. I believe that the
affair itself is a breach of privacy and there is no trust in a relationship
based on lies and deception. Discovery of an affair or inappropriate
behaviors between two persons not in a proper relationship is a hurtful and
harmful practice in the first place. Spouses have been known to have affairs
literally lasting years before a spouse finds out or possibly never knowing
of the other spouses wrongs. This day and age several things become issues
including the possiblity of STD's and health risks. I'm not sure that I
support your comments on this one. Where a computer is located may be the
answer when the spouse is home and awake and sitting beside it. However, it
is not a central issue to forestalling worries.

(2) chaim, November 14, 2007 11:14 PM

yes u can

to save ur husbands life u can do anything,if ur smart

(1) Anonymous, November 14, 2007 8:42 AM

I agree

Yes, I agree with not barging in. I remember reading something or hearing something with regards to Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski about one of the greatest thigs that you can do for a child is to given them their privacy.( I hope I am remembering it correctly) please check on this) yet, in taking this to heart I try to knock on my son's or daughters' door before entering and I announce who it is..... I also knock when my son or daughter are on the compouter and I make my footsteps loud on the floor so they know I am coming and I have them leave the door open. etc.....

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