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Is snooping through your partner’s phone always a dealbreaker?

New research suggests that some relationships can survive one partner looking through the phone of the other, speaking to the strength of those connections.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Lisbon recruited 102 individuals and asked them to recall a past situation in which they accessed the phone of someone they know, or someone they know accessed theirs. Participants were then asked to describe the events leading up to the incident, how the snooping was conducted and what happened to the relationship afterwards.

Out of 46 participants who provided information about relationship outcomes, 21 said that the relationship eventually ended, while 25 said the relationship survived the prying, the researchers said.

“In cases where the relationship ended, it was either because the phone owner felt their trust was betrayed or the relationship was also experiencing difficulties,” said study author Ivan Beschastnikh, a professor of computer science at UBC.

“Another main reason was the relationship was not that strong or important to begin with, as was the case with two work friends where one stole valuable contact information from the other’s cellphone.”

If the relationship survived, it was because the friendship was mostly solid and the victim considered it important enough to overlook the offence, Mr Beschastnikh said.

“In such cases, the victim explained away the snooping by considering it as a sign that they should reassure their romantic partner about their commitment to the relationship. They ended up excusing the behaviour and, in some cases, continued to give the other person access to their phone.”

Participants also mentioned a few different motivations for snooping on their friend’s or partner’s phones, with many citing jealousy and a desire to “control relationships with others”.

Others, the researchers continued, wanted to pull a prank, or to use the stolen information for financial gain or other nefarious purposes.

The study, “while small, is the first to provide detailed information on motives and outcomes around phone snooping from the point of view of those who were directly involved”, the researchers said.

“The fact that people snoop is widely known, but we know much less about exactly why they do what they do and about the eventual impact on their relationships,” Mr Beschastnikh said.

“This study contributes new insights to that discussion straight from those who have experienced snooping, and hopefully prompts more research down the line.”

The findings also highlight the critical role of human factors in digital security, added study co-author Professor Konstantin Beznosov.

“It all comes down to who you allow to use your phone, whether you trust them or they trust you, and what the parameters for your relationship with them are,” said Mr Beznosov.

“Given that partners, kids, friends and colleagues can easily observe or guess your PIN and other types of passcodes, you can restrict access to your phone with biometrics identification, which is available on most phones and hard to circumvent.”

Not too surprisingly, the findings show that the prime time for snooping is when the owner takes a shower or a bathroom break. So, if you don’t trust the people around you, take your phone to the bathroom with you, suggest the researchers.

The study, Vulnerability & Blame: Making Sense of Unauthorised Access to Smartphones, was presented earlier this month at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems conference.

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