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shoulder surfing
Posted on June 15, 2015 by in Identity & Privacy, Personal

While waiting in line for your morning coffee, you pull out your smartphone and begin to catch up on some work related emails and online banking. But are you sure you’re the only one looking at your screen?

Increasingly, identity thieves are spying on user activity by watching what’s typed into mobile devices. Called “shoulder surfing,” the technique is getting more high-tech, as criminals use video recorders, binoculars, telescopes, hidden cameras and other equipment to take images of online activity which puts you at risk for shoulder surfing identity theft.

In a recent blog post, security expert Robert Siciliano explains that it’s not just screen images that a thief can use; a skilled criminal can watch a user’s finger movements to detect passwords and login information.

Siciliano writes, “Shoulder surfing can be completely concealed in settings where people are normally packed together, such as on public transportation, airplanes, concert halls, or even a busy emergency room.”

A survey of U.K. commuters found that 72 percent of respondents have done shoulder surfing, and 20 percent of those respondents have seen confidential or highly sensitive information. Although the majority watched others’ screens to alleviate boredom, the statistics show how prevalent the practice may be and how easy it is to see someone else’s information.

Protect Yourself

With shoulder surfing on the rise, it’s worth considering some extra security measures when you’re in public. Here are some key tips for keeping your private information safe:

  • When sitting in a public area, try to keep your back to the wall, so thieves can’t look over your shoulder or watch from a position behind you.
  • If possible, conduct all business and financial transactions either in your home or at a location you know is secure, not using public wifi networks.
  • At work, position your screen so that people can’t see what you’re working on simply by walking by your door or cubicle.
  • Be especially careful when entering your personal identification number at an ATM or store, since shoulder surfers often watch for this type of transaction and use that information for withdrawals or purchases.
  • Be aware of anyone who seems to be filming or taking photos of an area, especially crowded spaces where many people are on personal devices.
  • Consider investing in some type of security screen or protector that can lower peripheral visibility of your monitor. This can be especially helpful on planes or in busy waiting rooms.
  • Shoulder surfing can involve plain old paper, too. Try to fill out sensitive paperwork (e.g. medical paperwork in a clinic waiting area or a credit application at a car dealership) in an area that’s away from other people.

Although it requires extra vigilance, protecting yourself from shoulder surfing is worth the effort. Don’t get caught in a wave of identity theft!

Image courtesy of Flickr user Randy Stewart.