How To Stay Safe From Shoulder Surfing

How To Stay Safe From Shoulder Surfing
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In this article

When scams are presented in the media they’re often shown as high-tech invasions done by trained hackers. But some of the largest tech scams in day-to-day life aren’t as complicated as we might think. Shoulder surfing is one example. All a potential would-be scammer needs to do is, well, look over your shoulder.

What is shoulder surfing?

Shoulder surfing is when someone watches and memorizes your sensitive information as you enter it on a device. Once they’ve acquired your passwords or worse, they can try to use that knowledge to gain access to your online accounts or money. Not all shoulder surfing is malicious, but it can be.

“The reason could be as innocent as a child wanting to increase their authorized screen time or types of shows they can watch to criminals gaining access to your bank accounts,” said Chris Parker, an online privacy and safety expert based in Tuslin, California.

How does shoulder surfing work?

When you’re on your phone or purchasing something, you’ll have to enter a password or PIN at some point. If you’re not taking proper safety measures, those around you have the chance of seeing what’s on screen.

This can be while they’re looking over your shoulder or around your sides, via hidden camera or binoculars or even by listening in on your phone calls. Depending on what password they acquire, they could take anything from money to your identity.

When does shoulder surfing happen?

“Shoulder surfing can occur pretty much anytime that someone can see you touching [a] device,” Parker said.

This means any time you’re actively entering information somewhere, it’s possible someone could see it. Some places are much worse to have your information stolen from, but none of them are ever good. This all the more reason to be mindful of your surroundings when you enter your password or PIN.

At an ATM

An ATM is an especially tricky place to find yourself in, as scammers are free to line up behind you under the false pretense that they are also interested in using the machine. Since there is no at-home option to acquire physical cash, this is a public-only option.

Any nearby scammers may see your PIN if you’re not careful while accessing your accounts. This is especially problematic if you walk away from the machine without ensuring the transaction is complete. Even though you’ve removed your card and received your money, the ATM allows—for a brief period—the option to continue the session with only PIN authorization. Once they get that, scammers can access your remaining funds.

At a bar

There are a lot of distractions at a bar. People are close to you, and alcohol is usually involved. You might log into social media to pass the time or be distracted on your phone while waiting for a drink. That’s when nearby shoulder surfers can strike.

On public transport

Since public transport is often crowded, you may have people next to you who can see your screen.

One of the major downsides to public transport is you truly have no privacy for what you’re doing on your phone. Even if you think that the other passengers are uninterested or busy, always be wary of who may be waiting to shoulder surf.

At a cafe or coworking space

As with public transportation, you will almost always have someone near you when you’re in a cafe or coworking space. The difference is that you may be logged into a device like a tablet or laptop and may leave it unattended when you walk away to make calls or use the bathroom. Coworkers may also be able to eavesdrop openly.

At the airport

The airport is stressful and often chaotic. You may be preoccupied trying to log in for check-in or browsing for information about your flight that you forget to be mindful. Other passengers will almost always be waiting for the same flight nearby and may be able to see your screen.

How to avoid shoulder surfing

Luckily, there are a multitude of ways that you can avoid shoulder surfing. Parker said the best way to steer clear of it is by avoiding the heart of the issue itself: Try not to use your passwords around other people. However, sometimes that isn’t always an option when you’re paying for things in a store or using an ATM. If that’s the case, consider some of these other ways to avoid shoulder surfing:

  • Use facial recognition or a fingerprint scanner instead
  • Stand with your back against a wall
  • Block the keyboard from view
  • Apply a privacy film to your devices
  • Don’t reuse passwords and use a password manager
  • Enable two-factor authentication
  • Consider contactless payment methods


No matter how safe you feel entering your information into any system, always be mindful of the area around you. You never know who might be able to see the screen. Shoulder surfing can happen in public, at work and even in your own home.

Try to shield your passwords or PINs, use alternate means of verification, consider two-factor authentications for your accounts and avoid inputting your passwords where others can see. If you need to, don’t be afraid to step away to handle account details on your phone and then return at a later time. Your privacy is worth it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is shoulder surfing legal?

Yes and no. In most cases, shoulder surfing is legal unless it falls into a niche category relating to public job opportunities.

How common is shoulder surfing?

Shoulder surfing is far more common than people think. Often, shoulder surfing is done on accident by the people around us in an unexpected situation.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.

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