Digital spies: 8 in 10 Americans confess to gadget snooping

Worried about China’s alleged espionage program? Perhaps you should focus your worries a bit closer to home if you live in the US, where 82% of people admit to snooping through someone else’s device at least once.

That’s the somewhat shocking result of a recent survey done by Secure Data Recovery — and the reasons seem a lot more visceral than gaining global supremacy in a digital game of thrones between two superpowers.

Let’s just get straight to the point. According to the survey, the juiciest materials uncovered as a result of rifling through a friend or partner’s mobile phone texts, images, and video clips tend to revolve around, or at least pertain to, sex.

Of the “most concerning discoveries” listed by Secure Data Recovery, 70% entailed “digital cheating or flirting” or “evidence of in-person cheating.” Only 17% of respondents cited “lying unrelated to a romantic relationship” as their top shocker, and, somewhat disappointingly, “illegal activity” came in close to last, with a measely 6%.

All of which would appear to suggest that, if anecdotal findings from invading their digital privacy are anything to go by, US residents are on the whole law-abiding folk who sure do love to screw around.

Too harsh, too presumptuous, maybe? Well, one might ask in that case why the Secure Data Recovery survey found that partners and ex-partners together made up two-thirds of designated targets of digital snooping, while siblings, friends, parents, and coworkers combined constituted just one in four.

Je ne regrette rien…

In further evidence that cheating partners are often the chief cause of playing clandestine digital detective with your probably-soon-to-be-erstwhile lover’s gadget, many spies or snoopers said they felt quite justified in their actions, invasion of privacy be damned.

“Do snoopers feel regret?” said Yevgeniy Reznik, laboratory operations manager at Secure Data who authored the study summary. “Well, over a third report not feeling any regret or remorse after snooping, which indicates that they may feel rational in their actions or are comfortable with snooping as a behavior.”

A quarter of so-called snoopers said they had found “something significant most or every time they snoop,” suggesting a certain amount of justification that may assuage any residual feelings of guilt.

Still not convinced? Well, according to Reznik’s summary, 56% of snoopers and spies said they had done so because of “suspicions of wrongdoing” as opposed to an overlapping 59% who merely cited “general curiosity.”

And if one ever needed any more evidence that spies of any kind are rarely motivated by the so-called greater good, just 14% cited “concern for the safety of others” as a reason for spying on someone else’s private life via their digital property. But hey, try telling that to your average (alleged) patriotic spy. Or a suspicious spouse, for that matter.

Intriguingly, those least likely to feel guilty for spying were Baby Boomers — roughly defined as people born in the postwar era, long before the advent of widespread internet usage, mass-marketed digital devices, and social media.

That said, Millennials who grew up with the tech at hand are most likely to engage in digital spying, with 85% fessing up to doing so — that’s opposed to just 77% of Generation Xers born in or around the 1970s. But overall, the percentage of amateur digital spies in America is shockingly high — 82% of all ages surveyed said they had snooped at some point.

Principles, what principles?

In fact, just one in 10 said they would never rifle through another person’s digital data as a matter of principle, with a similar proportion saying they hadn’t simply because they had never felt the need to do so.

“This data suggests that it’s actually quite rare to find someone who refrains from snooping purely on principle, as the majority either have snooped or may snoop if presented with a reason,” said Reznik.

He added: “When it comes to gender and generational differences, women are less likely to feel regret than men over snooping.” Women also admitted more readily to having turned digi-spy, with 88% saying they had as opposed to 77% of men.

“Perhaps the ease and accessibility of digital snooping is what drives people to engage in this behavior,” said Reznik. “The ubiquity of digital devices and the vast amount of information stored on them can make it tempting for individuals to seek out the private lives of those around them, all without having to consider the reasons for their curiosity.”

When it came to what data was spied upon, text messages or SMS were clear winners, with 87% of snoopers targeting those, while images including photos and videos came in a distant but still significant second (44%).

For the really dedicated, browser history (38%) and private notes (12%) were also viewed by amateur gadget sleuths, as was location history (9%). Bank or payment apps and online purchases together made up just one-tenth of targeted data, suggesting that money is not a significant motivation for have-a-go spies.

In terms of turning the tables, just over three in 10 Americans said they had confronted someone whom they suspected of spying on them, with women more likely to do so than men.

“As we continue to rely on digital devices and online communication, it becomes increasingly important to be mindful of our digital privacy and the boundaries of those around us,” said Reznik.

“Whether it’s setting clear expectations with a partner or taking the steps to secure our own devices, it’s crucial that we recognize the impact of digital snooping on relationships and work toward building trust and respect in our everyday actions — digital or in-person.”

Reznik’s advice is sage and clearly well meant, but in light of his own findings, it’s hard to see your average American following it. Or at least not while US citizens continue to lead, or be suspected of leading, such colorful ‘private’ lives.

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