The age-old business of breaking up has taken a decidedly
Orwellian turn, with digital evidence like e-mail messages, traces of Web site
visits and mobile telephone records now permeating many contentious divorce
Spurned lovers steal each other’s BlackBerrys. Suspicious spouses hack into each
other’s e-mail accounts. They load surveillance software onto the family PC,
sometimes discovering shocking infidelities.
Divorce lawyers routinely set out to find every bit of private data about their
clients’ adversaries, often hiring investigators with sophisticated digital
forensic tools to snoop into household computers.
“In just about every case now, to some extent, there is some electronic
evidence,” said Gaetano Ferro, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial
Lawyers, who also runs seminars on gathering electronic evidence. “It has
completely changed our field.”
Privacy advocates have grown increasingly worried that digital tools are giving
governments and powerful corporations the ability to peek into peoples’ lives as
never before. But the real snoops are often much closer to home.
“Google and Yahoo may know everything, but they don’t really care about you,”
said Jacalyn F. Barnett, a Manhattan-based divorce lawyer. “No one cares more
about the things you do than the person that used to be married to you.”
Most of these stories do not end amicably. This year, a technology consultant
from the Philadelphia area, who did not want his name used because he has a
teenage son, strongly suspected his wife was having an affair. Instead of
confronting her, the husband installed a $49 program called PC Pandora on her
computer, a laptop he had purchased.
The program surreptitiously took snapshots of her screen every 15 seconds and
e-mailed them to him. Soon he had a comprehensive overview of the sites she
visited and the instant messages she was sending. Since the program captured her
passwords, the husband was also able to get access to and print all the e-mail
messages his wife had received and sent over the previous year.
What he discovered ended his marriage. For 11 months, he said, she had been
seeing another man — the parent of one of their son’s classmates at a private
school outside Philadelphia. The husband said they were not only arranging
meetings but also posting explicit photos of themselves on the Web and
soliciting sex with other couples.
The husband, who like others in this article was reached through his lawyer,
said the decision to invade his wife’s privacy was not an easy one. “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 considering invading their spouse’s privacy, husbands and wives cite an
overriding desire to find out some secret. One woman described sensing last year
that her husband, a Manhattan surgeon, was distant and overly obsessed with his
She drew him a bubble bath on his birthday and then pounced on the device while
he was in the tub. In his e-mail messages, she found evidence of an affair with
a medical resident, including plans for them to meet that night.
A few weeks later, after the couple had tried to reconcile, the woman gained
access to her husband’s America Online account (he had shared his password with
her) and found messages from a mortgage company. It turned out he had purchased
a $3 million Manhattan condominium, where he intended to continue his liaison.
“Every single time I looked at his e-mail I felt nervous,” the woman said. “But
I did anyway because I wanted to know the truth.”
Being on the receiving end of electronic spying can be particularly disturbing.
Jolene Barten-Bolender, a 45-year-old mother of three who lives in Dix Hills,
N.Y., said that she was recently informed by AOL and Google, on the same day,
that the passwords had been changed on two e-mail accounts she was using,
suggesting that someone had gained access and was reading her messages. Last
year, she discovered a Global Positioning System, or G.P.S., tracking device in
a wheel well of the family car.
She suspects her husband of 24 years, whom she is divorcing.
“It makes me feel nauseous and totally violated,” Ms. Barten-Bolender said,
speculating that he was trying to find out if she was seeing anyone. “Once
anything is written down, you have to know it could be viewed by someone looking
to invade or hurt you.”
Ms. Barten-Bolender’s husband and his lawyer declined to discuss her
Divorce lawyers say their files are filled with cases like these. Three-quarters
of the cases of Nancy Chemtob, a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, now involve some
kind of electronic communications. She says she routinely asks judges for court
orders to seize and copy the hard drives in the computers of her clients’
spouses, particularly if there is an opportunity to glimpse a couple’s full
financial picture, or a parent’s suitability to be the custodian of the
Lawyers must navigate a complex legal landscape governing the admissibility of
this kind of electronic evidence. Different laws define when it is illegal to
get access to information stored on a computer in the home, log into someone
else’s e-mail account, or listen in on phone calls.
Divorce lawyers say, however, if the computer in question is shared by the whole
family, or couples have revealed their passwords to each other, reading a
spouse’s e-mail messages and introducing them as evidence in a divorce case is
Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer, describes one client, a man,
who believed his wife was engaging in secret online correspondence. He found
e-mail messages to a lover in Australia that she had sent from a private AOL
account on the family computer. Her lawyer then challenged the use of this
evidence in court. Ms. Gold-Bikin’s client won the dispute and an advantageous
Lawyers say the only communications that are consistently protected in a
spouse’s private e-mail account are the messages to and from the lawyers
themselves, which are covered by lawyer-client privilege.
Perhaps for this reason, divorce lawyers as a group are among the most
pessimistic when it comes to assessing the overall state of privacy in the
“I do not like to put things on e-mail,” said David Levy, a Chicago divorce
lawyer. “There’s no way it’s private. Nothing is fully protected once you hit
the send button.”
Ms. Chemtob added, “People have an expectation of privacy that is completely
James Mulvaney agrees. A private investigator, Mr. Mulvaney now devotes much of
his time to poking through the computer records of divorcing spouses, on behalf
of divorce lawyers. One of his specialties is retrieving files, like bank
records and e-mail messages to secret lovers, that a spouse has tried to delete.
“Every keystroke on your computer is there, forever and ever,” Mr. Mulvaney
He had one bit of advice. “The only thing you can truly erase these things with
is a specialty Smith & Wesson product,” he said. “Throw your computer into the
air and play skeet with it.”
5:20 PM ET
By Nahal Toosi, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Like two Cold War adversaries, Chana and Simon Taub are separated
by a wall — one that was built straight down the middle of their home to keep
the bickering spouses apart.
Neither one wanted to move out of their beloved Brooklyn house, and so, in
one of the strangest divorce battles the city has ever seen, a white drywall
partition was erected a few weeks ago on orders from a judge.
The divorce case, which has been staggering through the courts for nearly two
years, has been dubbed Brooklyn's "War of the Roses," after the 1989 movie
starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as a battling couple.
Aside from the wall, the Taub version of the story has some other farcical
elements: Chana says her husband of more than 20 years has bugged her phones.
Simon says his wife owns too many shoes.
It's not as if the Taubs have no place else to go. For one thing, they own a
place two doors down. But for reasons that include stubbornness, spite and their
love of the home, both insist on staying in this particular house in Borough
Park, a heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.
"It's my house. And emotionally, in my age, I want to be in my house!" says
Simon, 57, who was the one who requested the wall. He calls his wife a
Chana, 57, who claims her husband abused her, says she has as much right to stay
as he does, if not more. "I need a house to live in and money to live on!" she
says. "I worked very hard, like a horse, like a slave for him."
In New York City, it is not unusual for couples to fight over a house or refuse
to move out during divorce proceedings. Judges sometimes ask couples to set
boundaries, such as letting a spouse have access to the study during a certain
part of the day.
But an actual wall? That's a new one, says Barry Berkman, a New York divorce
The wall separates the living room from the staircase on the bottom floor of the
Taubs' richly decorated, wood-paneled home, a three-story brown-brick rowhouse
whose market value has been put at $923,000 by the city.
She gets the top floor, where the bedrooms are situated, along with the kitchen
on the second floor. He gets the living room on the first floor and the dining
room on the second floor. So that they don't run into each other on the second
floor, the door between the dining room and the kitchen is barricaded on both
One of the couple's children is staying with Dad; three others are staying with
Chana says that for two decades she served Simon like a virtual slave, putting
up with physical and mental abuse that grew more severe over the years. She says
she had to flush the toilet after him, and put on his socks and shoes for him.
He became so violent by mid-2005 that she filed for divorce, she says.
Simon denies ever laying a hand on Chana, and says he gave her a luxurious
lifestyle. But he says his sweater manufacturing company went bankrupt in the
late 1990s, and he suffered a second heart attack in 2005 that only worsened
their financial problems. He says she wants a divorce to squeeze what money he
Chana says she doesn't want much from her husband, mainly just alimony, child
support and a fair share of property.
In August 2005, a judge said Simon, whom Chana had forced out of the house,
could move back in after building a wall. Chana appealed. An appeals court
eventually allowed the wall, calling it a novel concept. The wall went up in
December, and Simon moved back in.
At one point during the transition, someone said Chana had 300 pairs of shoes
trapped on Simon's side. Chana claims that is a lie Simon cooked up to make her
look like the Imelda Marcos of the Orthodox Jewish community.
"I am not interested in shoes," she says.
Simon retorts: "Maybe it was 299. I didn't count it."
Chana says that since Simon has returned, he has been monitoring her via video
cameras. Simon says the surveillance goes both ways, and points to cameras on
her side, though Chana claims she does not control those. Chana says Simon has
bugged her phones. Simon says that's crazy — he doesn't care who she talks to.
Kimberly Flemke, a couples therapist in Philadelphia, says when spouses go so
far as to refuse to leave a house while divorcing, it often means neither is
ready to move on.
"It's clear that if they're going to go this length, there's still far too much
connection," she says. "I would hope they'd both go to therapy."
BEING “sent to Coventry” by one’s spouse was
worse than being given a black eye, though a black eye was a much more
commonplace cruelty allegation than silences, Mr Justice Faulks said in the
Divorce Court yesterday.
The Judge granted a decree nisi to Mr Edward James Barnes, aged 62, because of
cruelty. Mr Barnes alleged that his wife, Elizabeth Cora, aged 72, had
frequently “sent him to Coventry”.
Mrs Barnes, who still shares the same flat as her husband at Sloane Avenue
Mansions, Chelsea, denied being cruel.
The Judge described the case as “much sadder than most”. The couple were married
in August 1951, for comfort and companionship, he said. Mr Barnes has been
Mr Barnes occupied one bedroom and got all his meals out. Mrs Barnes had the
rest of the flat — knowing no one and regarding life as being in prison.
Early during the marriage Mrs Barnes would go into fits of temper and not speak
to her husband for a week at a time. He was depressed by his wife’s inexplicable
silences. A doctor whose help he sought considered her “obsessional”.
In 1966 they went on separate holidays because they could find no one to look
after their cat. When Mr Barnes returned, Mrs Barnes asked him whom he had taken
with him. When he said he was alone, she disbelieved him and “sent him to
Coventry” for two months. On an earlier occasion he had been “sent to Coventry”
for 13 weeks.
The Times Archives > On This Day - May 25, 1968,
The Times, 25.5.2005.