Forget to Logout? The Expectation of Online Privacy

At work last week I was looking up the companies Facebook page and noticed that my boss had, at some point, forgotten to log out of his account. While many nefarious thoughts about what mischief I could cause ran through my head, in the end I clicked on log out and left it at that. I didn’t tell him or snoop around on the page – I’m not sure if that is my personal set of ethics kicking in or just a lack of interest. My boss is a reasonably casual guy and I don’t think he would have cared if I had hit him with a sneaky status update. We have all seen it before, someone has their account ‘hacked’, which is code for leaving their phone unlocked around ‘friends’. But it got me thinking, do you have the right to privacy if you leave an account logged in?

Facebook by Samantha Steele
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If the worst thing to happen was a friend writes a funny update on your status, that can be deleted as soon as you find out, then it is not really a problem. Most people that do this sort of thing would be privy to most things on your Facebook page anyway. But what about a stranger? What if you left your phone on a table for a minute and when you returned to collect it someone was casually scrolling through your Facebook page? Would you feel different or the same?

I did once find a phone at work, it was left unlocked, and we did the right thing and called a couple of her contacts to let her know that we had her phone. I have also found four wallets in my lifetime, all which were returned because I went through its contents to find information about the owner. I still felt very awkward about searching through someones private contacts. Even though on these occasion there was a reason to be searching and probing into someone’s private details.

Where does this stand with a computer, particularly one that is known to be used by other computers. So at one point my boss was in my office, most likely ‘helping’ with some paperwork – I was sick for a few days last week – and I guess at one point he checked his Facebook status and left it logged in. So if you forget to logout, do you have any rights to privacy? or is it the same as leaving a $50 note in an ATM (this happened to me once)? As soon as you walk away the expectation is that it is gone, despite what the reality may be.

Facebook by Johan Larsson (CC BY 2.0)

Generally I don’t log out of Facebook at home or on my phone, it is always logged in. This is because I am lazy, I can’t be bothered to log out and back in every time I check it. However if I found someone – even a family member – casually scrolling though the page I would feel violated. I know several time sat work I leave Google signed in, which in my view is worse than Facebook as they have access to all of my emails, drive docs, and purchased entertainment – I don’t have credit card information saved, but I suspect that many people might.

The right to privacy comes down to the location. At work you should have an expectation of privacy as it is a professional place, at home absolutely, unless you are a child. However in a public place than absolutely not, if you leave a public computer logged in to Facebook, or worse, than anything that happens is your own fault. I’d like to live in a world where this doesn’t have to be the case, but the desire to see how the other is living is a core trait of humans – it is something that has been done for survival for generations. After all is this not what Facebook and other social media is all about? We are allowing others into our lives to see how we are living. A like is really nothing more than a stranger saying that you are doing things correctly.

It would be good if Facebook had a setting that caused it to logout after a predetermined time of inactivity to prevent someone from gaining access due to a forgotten logout. But that is not reality, and even in areas where general privacy is a given, in the end it is more hope and trust than a guarantee. The only way to be certain of privacy is to log out after every use, make it a habit. In Facebook click on setting, and it is the last menu item, click it to sign out and secure your online presence.

Feature Image: PRIVACY by Metro Centric (CC BY 2.0)

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