In-depth

What is shoulder surfing?

Our tips to keep your screen private

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

There you are, on the tube, or in a coffee shop, working away on the laptop, when you suddenly feel or notice you’re not the only one looking at your screen. Someone is shoulder surfing and you’re their victim, so to speak. 

Shoulder surfing is the ability to see the screen of someone else, where you’re sat next to them on the tube or you have a view from across the room. It’s not just annoying, it’s also a security issue if you have sensitive information on your device. 

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For many people, this is just an irrelevant compulsion; just a quick glance at video someone is watching on the train, or you’re eye is taken by a paragraph of a digital news story - you’re just naturally curious (the polite version of nosey). 

But then some people are a little more nefarious and the quick glance of a screen can present an opportunity. Personal information, work documents, passwords, all could be learned from a quick glance on a packed tube. Likewise, those that work remotely in coffee shops should be wary of prying eyes from other tables, or even people walking past you.  

This is a serious problem, particularly if you do have important work information on your laptop, phone or tablet. But there are ways you can minimise the risk...

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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.

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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

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

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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