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Romance in the digital era is beset by a unique set of challenges, as anyone who has agonized of their Facebook relationship status can attest. And the trickiest hurdle to navigate is dealing with those three little words that mean so much: “What’s your password?” 

That’s right: Password sharing has become the new expression of intimacy. For teens, the exchange of email, Facebook or other passwords is a sign of trust, demonstrating that neither party has anything to hide. For adults who live together or are married, swapping those case-sensitive characters extends beyond a symbolic gesture to matters of household efficiency. 

But when does convenient sharing cross into risky behavior? And what do you do if the relationship goes south? More often than not, it’s better to think twice before taking the password plunge.

Woodrow Hartzog, an assistant professor of privacy law and online agreement at Stanford University, addressed the social and legal risks of password sharing in a January NPR interview: “A lot of people feel as though they have nothing to hide from a friend or a spouse or romantic partner, so they share, thinking ‘I’m an open book,’ ” he said, but, “it’s significantly more complicated than that.”

First, and perhaps most important to remember, is that by giving out your password, you are giving someone else access to use your personal information.

If you’re savvy about using different passwords for different accounts—and that’s a big “if”—certain types of sharing can be benign: say, allowing your boyfriend the freedom to add titles to the Netflix queue. But in many other instances—with email, instant message, bank and other accounts—handing over a password is tantamount to providing unmitigated access to your personal life and your personally identifiable information (PII). The consequences can range from fights over misinterpreted emails to, in extreme cases, identity theft.

Other pitfalls of password sharing: “You risk getting locked out of your account because someone else has the password and can change it and you wouldn’t know it. You also give someone a very credible means to impersonate you,” Hartzog said. (Imagine an angry ex using your Facebook account to spread spam.) “And all of these things can have legal consequences, the least of which might be violating the terms of service on most websites.”

For those who dare to share it all, the risk for problems after a relationship ends is especially high.

Follow the measures below to protect yourself in the event of breakup, separation or divorce:

  1. Immediately reset passwords on all shared accounts.

  2. Closely monitor your accounts in the months afterward and throughout any legal process.

  3. Don’t share. Be prudent about discussing your relationship on social networking sites.

  4. Secure a safe-deposit box for important documents.

  5. Know the law. Learn your state’s laws about community property and shared debt and credit.


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