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Monday, February 4, 2013 - 7:35pm
(CNN) -- When a relationship ends badly, every racy photo or text you shared with your ex becomes a potential security problem.
All your private information, shared as a sign of love and trust, is suddenly vulnerable. A vengeful ex-lover could leak it online, use your passwords to cyberstalk you or exact other forms of digital revenge.
Scorned lovers are nothing new, nor are regrets, in the harsh light of a dissolving relationship, about exposing too much of yourself to someone. But in the mobile age, it's easier to share intimate pieces of information like photos and videos, as well as equally sensitive information such as e-mail passwords, banking logins, health insurance identification and Social Security numbers.
This Valentine's Day, 36% of Americans say they plan to share a salacious photo with their partner over text message, e-mail or social network, according to a new romance-themed survey from security company McAfee. According to the study, one in 10 exes has threatened to post a revealing photo of a former partner online, and 60% of those people have followed through with it.
What's more worrying is the increasingly common practice of cyberstalking significant others, current and former. More than 50% of people shared their passwords with a partner, the survey found.
"Sharing passwords is seen as a sign of love and devotion, a sign of commitment," said Robert Siciliano, McAfee's online security expert. "When the relationship goes south, change those passwords right away."
More than 56% of people snooped on their partner's social media pages and bank accounts, and 48.8% looked at their e-mails.
The cyberstalking habit extends beyond just current paramours.
Respondents also admitted to checking up on their exes, as well as their current partners' exes, on sites like Facebook and Twitter. The survey found that men are more likely than women to surreptitiously check their partner's personal accounts and to check on exes on social media.
"Be very careful," said Erika Holiday, a clinical psychologist who specializes in relationship issues and grief and loss. She recommends holding off on sharing that personal information, which can seem like a great idea in the early euphoric stages of a new love.
"Not until you truly truly know a person, and that takes years, even decades. It takes a very, very long time," she said.
Prevention is the only way to really protect yourself, and there are some practical security measures everyone should take.
Start by turning on password locks for your mobile devices and computer. When you're comfortable in a relationship, you might be more lax about security on these devices. Adding a passcode to a smartphone is recommended for everyone, regardless of relationship status, but only 40% of Americans currently protect their phones with a password.
Siciliano also recommends installing antivirus software on your personal devices, especially Android phones and tablets, to better protect any sensitive information saved on there. Also install tracking software, such as Apple's Find My iPhone, that allows you to remotely wipe information from a device if it's lost or stolen.
When it comes to sending naughty photos or sharing personal information like passwords with partners, Siciliano offers this sound advice: "How about just don't do it?
"There are a lot characteristics of this study that ultimately boil down to human behavior more than security issues," he said.
Once a photo or video is shared over text or e-mail, the creator has lost all control over what happens to that content. To take something like that out of circulation, the recipient would have to agree to delete all copies from their phone or e-mail account.
Trusting someone to do this is more complicated if the relationship has ended badly, and if they've shared it with even one other person, it could be impossible to rein in the spread of your personal photos.
Don't feel pressured to share your passwords, even as a way of proving that you are trustworthy or trust someone.
"It's OK to keep certain things to yourself; it doesn't necessarily mean you are hiding something," Holiday said.
She also suggests keeping an eye out for any red flags early in a relationship, a period when many people are blinded by new love and prone to overlooking flaws or telling behaviors. Listen for stories about how they handled past breakups, heed any warnings from their friends or relatives, and look out for any past behavior that was criminal or otherwise shady.
After a breakup, your options are more limited. Change any passwords immediately to protect personal data. If your ex has compromising photos or information, you can try to reason with them and ask that the files be deleted.
Holiday says the reason they would share photos in the first place is because they are experiencing pain. Letting them know how much pain you are also in can minimize their pain and, hopefully, decrease their desire for malice.
"If they can't reason with that person, then the damage is done, and the only thing they can do is to try and find meaning in that experience," Holiday said.
There is very little you can do once private photos or information are out there except learn from mistakes, share your story with others who can change their own practices and move on.
"Be humbled. We're talking about real-world shame here. Chalk it up to a learned experience," Siciliano said.