1 in 5 adults secretly access Facebook accounts that aren’t theirs: study

People who access their friends' Facebook pages without permission do it either out of curiosity or jealousy, a UBC study says. Iain Masterton/Getty Images

Every day about 600,000 Facebook accounts are illegally accessed by someone who isn’t the intended user of the account, according to the social media giant. But while you’re taking every measure to make sure hackers from the outside aren’t getting in, someone on the inside probably already has.

According to a new survey by the University of British Columbia, more than one in five adults admit they’ve secretly accessed the Facebook accounts of their friends, family members and/or romantic partners through the victim’s own computer or smartphone device without permission.

“It’s clearly a widespread practice,” Wali Usmani, a UBC computer science graduate student and co-author of the study said in a statement. “Facebook private messages, pictures or videos are easy targets when the account owner is already logged on and has left their computer or mobile open for viewing.”

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The survey polled 1,308 adult Facebook users and found that much of the snooping was out of simple curiosity or fun — for example, changing someone’s profile picture as a prank. However, some of those surveyed admitted to snooping out of jealousy or animosity.

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“Jealous snoops generally plan their action and focus on personal messages, accessing the account for 15 minutes or longer,” says UBC computer science professor and study co-author Ivan Beschastnikh. “And the consequences are significant: in many cases, snooping effectively ended the relationship.”

The researchers say it’s easy for people to access their friends’ accounts on personal devices because many users will not set up passwords for their computers or smartphones, and will automatically save passwords on browsers and apps to bypass a login every time they access the site.

By choosing to not input your username and password every time you sign in, researchers say it makes it easy for others to gain access.

“Two possible explanations for this is that [the victims] did not think that unauthorized access could come from someone they knew well, or that they felt a false sense of security knowing that the particular device was under their close watch,” the study reads.

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However, there were instances when the perpetrator shared passwords with the victim in the hopes of securing a mutual understanding that they would respect each other’s privacy, researchers say.

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“There’s no single best defence — though a combination of changing passwords regularly, logging out of your account and other security practices can definitely help,” says Kosta Beznosov, electrical and computer engineering professor at UBC and study co-author.

The prevalence of this practice among adults was particularly surprising to Beschastnikh.

“We were also surprised at how devious some of the tactics were,” he tells Global News. “People are very resourceful when it comes to getting information especially about their partners. They were very opportunistic and strategic at the same time.”

Beschastnikh says some of the study’s subjects even went as far as using technical means to obtain access to their partner’s Facebook profile, including using keylogger software and calculating opportune moments they could gain access.

The importance of the study, he says, is to shed more light on the importance of cyber security.

“I think it’s important to educate people about privacy online,” Beschastnikh says. “The rule of thumb that I recommend to everyone is to assume that every online interaction you have — whether it’s through email or Facebook — is in the public domain. So, you can’t really guarantee privacy when you upload data onto the internet because it may be leaked or infiltrated, and I don’t think people have really understood this yet.”

A 2013 poll by Mobile Phone Checker found that when it comes snooping on romantic partners, men are twice as likely to secretly check their partner’s phone without permission than women.

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Out of the 2,081 U.K. adults who were polled, 62 per cent of men admitted to snooping compared to just 34 per cent of women.

The majority of those who sneaked a peak (89 per cent) said they did it to find signs of infidelity, and 48 per cent said they found what they were looking for through either text messages or direct Facebook messages.

Facebook suggests doing a few things when it comes to protecting your password for the social media website:

  • Don’t use your Facebook password for any other accounts online. Keep it unique to Facebook.
  • Never share your password with anyone.
  • Avoid using your name or common words. Your password should be difficult to guess.
  • Always log out of Facebook from your browser or app.
  • Set yourself up with login alerts. These notifications will let you know if someone else is attempting to log in to your account from an unrecognized device or browser.

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