This Is Why You Keep Looking At Other People's Phone Screens

Dhir Acharya - Apr 04, 2019, 8:12 am IST

As screens are everywhere these days, it's a fact that we are looking at other people's screens more, too. That's called shoulder surfing.

Just stop for a moment and take a look around, people’s screens are everywhere. You can literally see screens anywhere you go, while waiting for your coffee, on a bus, on a train, during a live concert, on the street, etc. People view all aspects of life through their screens, and their dependence on it has increased over the years.

Screens have not only changed the way we live and interact, but they have also changed how we define “shoulder surfing,” previously known as peeking over shoulders, usually with malicious intent. Almost three decades ago, someone might try to do that to steal your credentials, like passwords, which is why they show up as dots when you type.

But now, while it’s impossible to ignore people’s screens, there weren’t any detailed investigations into shoulder surfing incidents as well as their implications in the real world. So a Germany-based research team did. Survey results by this team show that “shoulder surfing was mostly casual and opportunistic,” mostly occurs among strangers, in public transport, and involves smartphones. Notably, the survey reveals why we can’t help looking at other people’s screens.

Other people’s screens are glimpses of an archive. On the subway or train, we can hardly access to the Internet, so shoulder-surfing people’s screens is a way to kill time and even get entertained with Candy Crush, reading in-app, books or magazines, television, etc.

Other people’s screens are works in progress. We can also spot unfinished texts that people edit over and over again so they can send at the next stop of the subway. In some cases, we can watch people touching up their photos (especially selfies), or their group chats filled with religious affirmations, their work emails talking about clients because now we can work anywhere not just at the office.

Other people’s screens are sources of recommendations. Nah, you don’t ask people what they are reading and whether they are enjoying it or not, you just “surf” to get clues. It looks like a lot of people watch more action movies than your previous expectation, you can also see interesting TV shows, not that you know the shows’ names or what’s going on in them. However, while you may have a good time shoulder surfing those contents, it’s extremely hard to Google them when you can only give a limited, puzzled, confusing description based on what you see and remember. Shoulder surfing also suggests that WhatsApp is quite a popular messaging platform right now, there goes another recommendation for you if you are not familiar with this app.

Other people’s screens have rear cameras and sometimes go viral. In 2018, a tweet about shoulder surfing received more than 51 retweets. The viral tweet included several photos of a man that was apparently and persistently looking at other people’s screens.

tweet talking about nosey man on subway looking at people's phones

In 2017, a man went viral for shoulder surfing

Other people’s screens are a brief historical aberration. Nowadays, phones can unlock by scanning users’ faces and are able to tell whether users are smiling or not. So it’s not a surprise when they can let users know when others are watching, on a train or somewhere else.

However, because screens also serve as a source of raw content to go on the Internet, shoulder surfing and watch other people’s screens is not only privacy evasion but also a form of theft. And while one mostly unintentionally look at other people’s screens, both observers and users expressed negative feelings including embarrassment, anger, guilt, or unease. No one likes the idea that their screens are being watched by others. According to the survey, among 37 cases, only one respondent reported positive feelings; the others felt like they were harassed or spied on.

All in all, looking at other people’s screens seem inevitable these days. But whatever you do, try to behave in public and avoid shoulder surfing as much as you can.