Shoulder surfing – the act of spying on your device over your shoulder to steal valuable personal data – likely conjures images of old spy movies full of cloak-and-dagger theatrics. But this threat lives in the real world too, hiding in plain sight in the public places we visit every day.
By understanding what shoulder surfing is, why people do it, its dangers, and most importantly – how to prevent falling victim, you can outsmart tech thieves and keep your information safe on the go. Consider this your insider’s guide to identifying and preventing shoulder surfing attacks.
What Exactly is Shoulder Surfing?
Shoulder surfing refers to observing or recording someone‘s electronic device, documents, or other sensitive material without their consent to gain access to private information. It‘s essentially digital snooping.
Shoulder surfers typically strike in crowded public settings where they can blend in, like:
- Public transportation
- Coffee shops and restaurants
- Airports and travel hubs
- Schools and libraries
- Retail stores
They peer over your shoulder, around your arm, or simply glance repeatedly at your screen or paperwork to capture:
- Account passwords and PINs
- Financial information
- Health and insurance records
- Work documents
- Emails and text messages
- Dating app content
Armed with this goldmine of personal data, shoulder surfers gain the ability to:
- Access and take over your online accounts
- Make unauthorized transactions
- Commit identity theft
- Access confidential work or medical info
According to recent research by CyberSmart:
- 1 in 3 people have experienced potential shoulder surfing in public
- 12% of shoulder surfing victims had their financial accounts accessed by snoops
- 15% had their personal online accounts hacked after shoulder surfing incidents
Shoulder surfing in public places affects nearly 1 in 3 people.
Who Are These Shoulder Surfers Anyway?
You might picture a sneaky stranger peering over your shoulder, but shoulder surfers can also be:
- Friends and family – To grab quick personal info like passwords or your social security number without having to directly ask you.
- Business competitors – To steal confidential documents and data they aren‘t authorized to access.
- Ordinary folks – Who give into the temptation to be nosey and see what others around them are doing.
- Scammers – Looking for financial account details, login credentials, or personal data to facilitate cybercrimes.
Shoulder surfing does not necessarily require criminal masterminds. The most basic techniques require nothing more than your eyes and a good memory. But more advanced shoulder surfers use:
- Quick repetitive glances – Frequently looking away can avoid detection vs one long stare.
- Recording devices – Seemingly innocuous phones, glasses, or bags used to secretly record activity.
- Team surveillance – Multiple shoulder surfers working together to collect more data.
- Reading over documents – Physically looking at sensitive papers you‘re reviewing rather than screens.
What motivates shoulder surfers? The criminal element is after personal gain obviously – stealing identities and money. But psychology can also play a role:
- Invasion of privacy – Controlling what information they can access about others.
- Competitive edge – Using insider knowledge to gain an advantage.
- Boredom – Snooping for entertainment or to pass time in public.
- Embarrassment – Putting private data on display without consent.
Now that you know what shoulder surfing is and who perpetrates it, let‘s look at the dangers getting your data spied on can create.
Dangers of Shoulder Surfing: More Than Meets the Eye
Having a stranger read your emails over your shoulder may seem only like an awkward invasion of privacy. But shoulder surfing can enable serious cybercrimes with damaging consequences:
Pieces of personally identifiable information can help scammers impersonate you online and with financial institutions to commit identity theft. This can destroy your credit and finances.
Bank account or credit card numbers captured through shoulder surfing give thieves direct access to your assets. Debit card PINs retrieved from ATM shoulder surfing make it even easier to empty accounts.
With account login credentials, intruders can access your online accounts for email, social media, shopping, and more. They may lock you out by changing passwords and security questions. Fixing compromised accounts is time-consuming and frustrating.
Confidential Data Theft
Professional or medical documents spied on by shoulder surfers put your private data in the hands of others without authorization. This breaks trust and ethical boundaries.
Having your personal information and space violated can leave you feeling embarrassed, anxious, angry, and ashamed. You may doubt your ability to keep data secure.
62% of shoulder surfing victims report feeling emotional distress from the experience.
So clearly, shoulder surfing is more than just rude. It‘s dangerous. Next you‘ll learn how to detect and stop these privacy-invading creeps in their tracks.
How To Spot Someone Shoulder Surfing You
To protect yourself, you first need to know the signs of a shoulder surfer watching your activity:
- Repetitive looking over at your screen or papers
- Quickly looking away when you notice them
- Tilting or angling phones, glasses, or unusual cameras at you
- Watching you from around displays or corners
Invasion of Space
- Leaning in close to you physically
- Reading over your shoulder
- Hovering around you longer than normal
- Finding excuses to stay close like repeatedly checking a bag
- Looking around nonchalantly while repositioning to see your screen
- Staring blankly at phones or books while actually watching you
- Facing or glancing the opposite direction of normal foot traffic flow
Stay alert for these red flags whenever using devices or reviewing sensitive documents in public. Subtle shoulder surfing can be hard to detect – but catching them in the act deterrs further snooping.
9 Expert Tips to Prevent Shoulder Surfing
Alright, now that you know what behaviors to watch for, here are our best tips to avoid falling victim to shoulder surfers:
1. Shield Your Screen
Use your body or physical objects to block your screen from prying eyes around you. Cup your hand on the back of your phone when entering passwords or tilt laptop screens down.
2. Watch Your Six
Stay aware of who‘s around and behind you. Glance around frequently to detect anyone attempting to peer at your activities. Shoulder surfers hate being noticed.
3. Keep It Brief
Only access sensitive info briefly in public to provide less opportunity for onlookers. Type passwords quickly or visit accounts only when necessary. The longer you access data, the more you risk exposure.
4. Avoid Crowds
Be extra cautious accessing confidential data in dense crowds where shoulder surfers can hide in plain sight near you. Never leave devices unattended.
5. Use Privacy Filters
Install screen filters or shields that block viewing from broader angles. This prevents rubbernecking onlookers from snooping on your displays in public.
6. Pick Your Spot
Sit against walls or in corners to limit visibility from behind. Avoid conducting private business in wide open high traffic areas.
7. Watch For Recording
Keep an eye out for people holding phones, glasses, or bags at odd angles oddly aimed in your direction. This signals they may be capturing your activities instead of minding their business.
8. Encrypt Your Connection
Use a VPN like NordVPN to encrypt your internet traffic on public WiFi networks. This protects online accounts from shoulder surfers spying on the network.
9. Use Password Managers
Tools like NordPass generate tough random passwords AND conveniently auto-fill them so you avoid visibly typing passwords for snoops to see.
Shoulder surfing is a real threat, but following these tips makes you a much harder target.
What To Do If You‘re A Shoulder Surfing Victim
If you suspect or know your private data was exposed by a shoulder surfer, take these steps to protect yourself:
- Freeze Credit – Contact credit bureaus to freeze accounts and block fraudulent lines from being opened.
- Monitor Financial Accounts – Watch all bank and credit card statements for any unauthorized charges. Report them immediately.
- Change Passwords – Reset all account passwords compromised by shoulder surfing observation. Opt for long complex passwords.
- Enable Two-Factor Authentication – Add 2FA to accounts for extra login protection even if passwords get stolen.
- File Police Reports – Report identity fraud to law enforcement and the FTC to make incidents official.
- Beware Phishing – Don‘t click links or provide info if contacted about "verifying account changes". This is likely the shoulder surfer attempting further social engineering for access.
Shoulder Surfing Prevention FAQs
What‘s worse, shoulder surfing or phishing?
Phishing scams cast a wider net and ensnare more victims. But shoulder surfing can capture more sensitive data from fewer individual targets. Both are dangerous for different reasons.
Can security cameras lead to more shoulder surfing?
Potentially yes – cameras that capture PIN pads and ATM screens may expose you to remote shoulder surfing beyond in-person snooping. Covering your hand when entering PINs helps.
Does shoulder surfing directly violate any laws?
Yes, shoulder surfing crosses lines related to invasion of privacy, identity theft, wiretapping, computer abuse, and fraud depending on what methods are used and data stolen.
What public spots pose the highest shoulder surfing risks?
Public transit, coffee shops, travel hubs, libraries, and anywhere with dense crowds and strangers in close proximity all carry increased shoulder surfing risks where thieves can hide in plain sight.
What‘s the #1 way to avoid falling victim to shoulder surfing?
Simply avoiding accessing or exposing sensitive data in public areas limits shoulder surfing opportunities more than anything else. Be smart about what you access where.
Keep Your Information Yours
Shoulder surfing is a sneaky form of social engineering that allows thieves to steal private data right under your nose. But a bit of awareness about your surroundings and wise practices for shielding your screens and entering data privately go a long way.
Don‘t let fear of shoulder surfers dictate your activities. Just use common sense and take reasonable precautions in public spaces, especially crowded areas, to keep your data safe. You shouldn‘t have to worry about strangers virtually reading your information over your shoulder.