In-depth

What is shoulder surfing?

Our tips to keep your screen private

Someone looking over a woman's shoulder at a phone screen

Ever been working on your phone or laptop in a public place and got the feeling someone's watching what you're doing? Chances are you could be right.

Shoulder surfing, which refers to the ability of people around you to view your work is one of the major risks associated with remote working, and one that's easy to miss. After all, it's not really possible to be aware of every stranger's stolen glance.

For some shoulder surfers, the compulsion to look at what you're doing is the same as when people sneak a peek at a stranger's book or newspaper in a crowded train or bus. They see someone paying attention to something, consciously or subconsciously decide it must be interesting and so decide to take a look too. In other words, they're just nosey.

This isn't the case for everyone, however, and some people may have more nefarious aims namely, they could be trying to steal potentially sensitive information.

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With the possibility of a data leak stemming directly from your actions, whether that's information on users that could result in a hefty fine, sensitive financial data, or something else, you need to take action to minimise the risk.

This doesn't have to mean never working in a public place again, though. Here are some tips and tricks to keep prying eyes from your screens while you're out and about.

Tilting

If you are using a smartphone on a train or bus and feel the unwanted gaze of someone else over your shoulder, you can simply tilt the device away. Similarly, you can lower the phone and cut off the angle.

This tactic is a little harder with a tablet or laptop but does still work if it's the person sitting next to you having a snoop. With a laptop, you can always tilt the screen downwards slightly, which if anything will probably signal that you want privacy.

Blocking

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This is a more aggressive method, but if you're looking at sensitive work documents on the go then that's your prerogative. You can use your free hand to cover the side of your smartphone that's been compromised.

If it's a laptop, hold an object up at the side of the screen, such as the case, or a book, or your bag and block off the vantage point. During the winter months, a big coat can come in handy.

Walls

When working remotely in a coffee shop or a public place its best practice to find a seat against a wall to keep all those prying eyes in front of you and over the other side of your laptop screen. For an extra top tip, make sure the wall isn't all glass or mirrored.

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This is not much help when commuting, although the back of the bus will also work if you want to hide what your googling.

Unplugging

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If you've got dodgy Wi-Fi at home and have to work in a public place, then shoulder surfing is an occupational hazard. However, if you have a great home connection, use it. The best way to stop people snooping on your companies business is to keep it private, stay home, or actually go to work.

And, also, If you're searching through social media in public and worry that people are snooping, you can always just switch it off and put your device away. Take the opportunity to be social in real life rather than online, or perhaps read a book on your commute instead. Although this will still be subject to shoulder surfing...

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