Is Looking At Someone’s Phone Screen Wrong?

“Shoulder Surfing” is a new term given to the act of looking at someone else’s phone screen while they’re using it, and it’s everywhere.

By nowproducerdave on May 15, 2018
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The short answer is yes, but we’ll get into a couple different articles with differing opinion. The Wall Street Journal gave a nice explanation of “shoulder surfing,” or looking at someone else’s phone over their shoulder. It’s rude, it’s wrong, and we shouldn’t do it. But we just can’t help our curiosity.

We as people are engrossed without phones. We walk around while texting, we even hold our phone in our hand when we’re not using it. It’s probably true that we stare into phone screens more than we look into other people’s eyes. So it’s natural that when we see a phone screen light up, our attention is naturally aroused, and we look into the soft glow. The bad news is that it happens when other people are using their phones. We’re sitting next to someone on a train or when we’re flying somewhere. They pull out their phone to text someone, to listen to music, or to play a game. And we immediately know who they’re texting, what they’re saying, their taste in music, and what they’re playing. They may not even realize it. You’ve had someone reading over your shoulder before, too, I guarantee it.

See also: Phones are so common that young kids can’t hold pencils in school.

There’s a figure that about 97% of the people out there in the world have been “shoulder surfed,” or have done it themselves. Typically those who are doing the surfing are just “bored or curious,” but if you’re constantly pulling your phone out and putting it away again, well, someone knows your screen password. If you’re logging into anything, like your bank or anything else you type in a password for, well, it’s just that easy. Our personal bubbles are transparent, and like it or not, people can easily see what you’re doing or figure out information about you.

Is it wrong? Yes, morally it is very wrong. What someone is doing is their business. Just because they’re being reckless and ignorant to people around them seeing what they’re doing doesn’t give anyone the right to look. But truthfully, you’re on your own to make sure you stay safe. Don’t use your phone in crowds unless you know it’s just something harmless like checking the time or playing a game. If you want to send private messages, find a spot to keep them private. There’s a ton of other info about “shoulder surfing” here. However, some people say that it’s all fair-game.

One author who is defending the practice says “It is perfectly fine to read along as you watch people in your line of vision write emails and compose texts and scroll through the internet. In fact, it’s an extension, and basically a harmless one, of one of life’s greatest pleasures: people-watching.” People watching is fun. Sitting on a park bench and watching people walk or interact with each other is entertaining. People are interesting. But we don’t know personal details about those people. We see what they do, not what they’re writing, Googleing, or texting. Anyway, shoulder surfing etiquette is all very interesting to read about. You can find the original Wall Street Journal story here, and the defense piece here (which really echos the WSJ article but kind of flips it), check that story out here.

Google has been working on tech that combats shoulder surfers. It uses the front-facing camera, and when it spots a face in the distance it goes to work. It shows an image of the surfer on the screen and pastes a “target” over their face. After that, the snapchat-like filter kicks on and shows the person “vomiting a rainbow.” Here’s a video of how it works (below), and more info on the tool here.

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