Access Not Granted: Accessing Someone’s Phone Without Permission
Published on 12th January, 2020 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
Smartphones have become an indispensable part of our lives and are gradually becoming an extension of our personal identity. Unauthorized access to our smartphones would then mean a serious infringement on our privacy. This is a common concern that comes with the increasing convenience of smartphones. In a recent study by Marques, Guerreiro, Carriço, Beschastnikh and Beznosov (2019), they collected 102 accounts of unauthorized access to smartphones through an online survey. These 102 accounts were stories written by participants about past incidents in which either they were the ones who accessed someone’s smartphone, or their smartphones were accessed by someone they know. The researchers identified several findings regarding the motivations and contexts behind those accessing another’s smartphone without permission.
1. Most accounts of checking on someone's phone involved intimate partners
62% of the accounts by participants regarding unauthorized access to their or another’s smartphone involved people who were intimate partners. This is followed by people who were friends (26%), family members (10%), acquaintances (1%) and co-workers (1%). The researchers concluded that people who are close to the smartphone’s owner are more likely to access the smartphone without their permission.
2. Most were motivated by a desire to learn about the smartphone owner’s relationship with third parties
Researchers identified 4 types of motivations behind accessing another’s smartphone without permission: 1. Aiming to seek control over another’s relationships with others 2. Pranking the smartphone’s owner 3. Using the device for convenience - such as accessing another’s phone to snap a photo 4. To exploit for personal gains - such as accessing another’s phone to obtain financial information
Out of these 4 motivations, results showed that the most common motivation behind accessing another’s smartphone without permission was to control the owner’s relationships with others (69%). This is also the main motivation reported why individuals checked on the phones of intimate partners (You may find out more on reasons why individuals check on the phones of their partner's here).
3. Mutual trust is necessary to maintain relationships
Most of the stories described that mutual trust is important in close relationships. However, most of the participants described that trust is built when the other party makes themselves vulnerable to access violations. For instance, for intimate partners, a partner who has nothing to hide will leave their phone unattended and is hence considered more trustworthy than a partner who carries their phone everywhere, even to the bathroom. The latter situation evokes more suspicion from their significant other. One of the participants described the following::
“Val was suspicious. Ash would take their smartphone everywhere including when they were showering. Ash would turn their smartphone off if they had to leave it in a room with Val.” (Ash is the smartphone’s owner and Val is the person accessing the device.)
Researchers concluded that displaying vulnerability to violations builds trust in the relationship. On the contrary, not showing vulnerability evokes suspicion and is usually reciprocated by the other partner accessing the smartphone without permission. However, results also showed that even in cases when vulnerability to privacy violations are displayed but abused by their partners, most relationships were described to be terminated immediately because of the unauthorized access.
4. Participants mostly shifted the blame away from themselves
For participants described from the perspective of someone whose smartphone got accessed, their accounts blamed the accessor’s character and personality. For instance, they would describe the accessor as “controlling”, being “quite possessive” and as being a “lunatic”. On the contrary, when participants recounted from the perspective of the accessor, they would blame the situation and provided valid justifications for their unauthorized access. Some accounts described how they caught the device owner receiving a notification from someone the accessor did not like, or how the relationship is getting more distant or justifying that they caught their partner talking on the phone late at night.
5. Consequences for the relationship
The results revealed that 61 accounts out of the total 102, had the device owner eventually finding out about the unauthorized access. Participants also included descriptions of the consequences after finding out and researchers found that participants expressed negative emotions more than positive. Negative emotions found included annoyance, anger, guilt, humiliation, pain, regret, sadness and shame.
Another consequence was the termination of relationships. While there were not many accounts that provided direct evidence that relationships ended, out of those that did, there were 21 stories that ended partly due to the unauthorized access and 25 stories that indicated relationships persisted in spite of the unauthorized access. Researchers found that participants often described incidents of unauthorized access to be significant in their lives. In relationships that did not end, stories provided by participants described the persistence in the relationship to be painful. And for relationships that ended were eventually mended and made stronger.
The study also found benefits to unauthorized access to smartphones. Researchers noted that when the motivation behind the access was harmless, relationships were instead strengthened. For instance, some of the stories described that the phone was accessed to help plan a surprise party or a gathering and there were stories that described accessing the phone to prank the owner. Such scenarios often help to build rapport in the relationships and are found in healthy relationships.
Accessing someone’s smartphone without permission is a violation of privacy and often breaks the trust in a relationship. It is commonly found between intimate partners who are mostly motivated by the desire to control their partner’s relationships with others. However, there is an upside to unauthorized access to smartphones - harmless motivations behind accessing another’s phone can help to build rapport in a relationship.
The results revealed that unauthorized access to smartphones mostly happened between intimate partners and most accounts justified their actions on suspicions that their partner is cheating on them.
Marques, D., Guerreiro, T., Carriço, L., Beschastnikh, I., & Beznosov, K. (2019, April). Vulnerability & Blame: Making Sense of Unauthorized Access to Smartphones. In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (p. 589). ACM.
Article written with Jasmine Kuah. Jasmine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Jasmine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who wishes to help individuals improve their quality of life with better mental health. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.