What Is Shoulder Surfing? How Does It Affect Cybersecurity

By   Adeola Adegunwa
Writer , Informationsecuritybuzz | Mar 20, 2023 01:08 am PST

We rely primarily on technology to protect our sensitive data, including financial information, personal information, and corporate secrets, in the extremely digital world we live in today. Our personal and sensitive information is vulnerable to being obtained by evil people as technology is widely adopted.

One of the methods used by hackers to gain access to sensitive information is shoulder surfing. In this article, we will explore what shoulder surfing is, how it affects cyber-security, and, most importantly, how to prevent yourself from such attacks. 

Overview Of Shoulder Surfing

Shoulder surfing refers to a cyber attacker’s technique where an individual tries to obtain sensitive or confidential information. It is typically done by looking over their shoulder to read their screen, listening to their conversation, or even capturing their keystrokes using hidden cameras or keyloggers. Shoulder surfing can steal passwords, usernames, credit card numbers, personal identification numbers (PINs), and other sensitive data.

Most times, Shoulder surfing usually happens in crowded public places. Shoulder surfing could be done by the criminal standing or sitting nearby to watch the victim physically enter their information. Sometimes, it could be done using sophisticated video cameras, binoculars, CCTV, and Spy cameras to spy on the victim and steal their confidential information. 

Shoulder surfing can seriously threaten cyber-security as it can compromise the confidentiality of sensitive information. Cyber attackers can use this information to access an unauthorized system and network. This can effectively lead to data breaches, identity theft, financial losses, and other malicious activities. It is a serious threat to cyber-security and can cause severe financial loss and harm to one’s image, individuals, and organizations.

How Does It Happen In Cyberspace?

Shoulder surfing is one of the ways hackers of harvesting users’ private information, which can lead to a serious threat to such information. It can occur in cyberspace in some number of ways, this includes:

●       Public Wi-Fi networks

One of the most common ways shoulder surfing can happen in cyberspace is by using public Wi-Fi networks. Public Wi-Fi networks are usually unprotected, which makes them prone to attacks. Attackers can use packet sniffing software to intercept and capture network traffic. As a result, they have access to information such as usernames, passwords, and other sensitive information. They can also set up fake Wi-Fi hotspots to trick users into connecting to their network, allowing them to monitor their activities. 

●       Phishing Scams

Phishing is another way attackers can use it. It involves attackers sending emails or messages that appear from trusted sources, such as banks, e.t.c. to victims. These messages often contain links to a clone website that resembles the original one. When a user enters their private credentials on these sites, attackers can gain access to them and use them for fraudulent activities. 

●       Social engineering

This is a technique used by cyber attackers to conduct shoulder surfing. It involves tricking individuals into divulging their private information or performing activities that can compromise their security. For example, an attacker can pose as a legitimate authority, such as tech support or service provided, to access a user’s device or ask for a password. 

●       Physical access

It is one of the most direct ways attackers can use shoulder surfing. It involves physically accessing a device and installing spyware or keyloggers to capture sensitive information. This can occur if users leave their devices unattended in a public place or if someone gains access to your home or office. They can also spy on victims physically by monitoring them when using an ATM or their devices. They can also use hidden cameras or recording devices to capture keystrokes or screen captures.

Why Do Hackers Use Shoulder Surfing? 

Hackers use shoulder surfing because it is an effective method of obtaining sensitive information. It does not require any sophisticated technical skills or tools and can be done within a short amount of time. It is also a social engineering tactic used by hackers to gain the trust of their victims while distracting them from stealing their information. Thereby hackers can gain information easily and within a short time. 

Hackers also use shoulder surfing because of the low risk involved. They can walk away and target another user if caught in the process. Also, proving that someone was shoulder surfing is difficult because no trace is left behind.

Consequences Of Shoulder Surfing?

The attack and consequences depend largely on the amount of information the attacker got. For example, if the attacker accessed the user’s social media accounts, credit card details, and bank information. It can lead to One of the major consequences of shoulder surfing attacks is identity theft. An attacker can use this information for fraud, leading to identity theft. 

An identity can be worse as they can use information such as social security numbers to open new credit accounts, apply for loans and access health insurance. Attackers can use this health insurance to get medical care or apply for government benefits under your name.

Furthermore, access to this information can give them access to wipe users out financially by taking out loans in users’ names or making fraudulent purchases. As a result can lead to further legal damage, such as leaving you in massive debt or damage to credit scores, and legal troubles.

Examples Of Shoulder Surfing

It’s easy to fall victim to shoulder surfing. Often, it happens when users are distracted or in a rush. Shoulder surfing can happen anywhere, and shoulder surfers can use various methods to gain access to sensitive information. 

One way is through direct observation, where a surfer tries to look over a person’s shoulder while they input their data. Another way is through recording devices, such as video recorders. They can set up hidden cameras to record people while they input their data. Some of the possible scenarios where people fall victim are;

● You are logging into a banking app and entering your username and password in a public place.

● You pay for things with a debit or credit card, an in-store transaction.

● By providing private information unconsciously in conversation with someone in public loudly. 

● You are accessing the corporation system publicly in remote locations.

● We are entering the ATM pin while there are customers behind us.

Ten Ways To Prevent Shoulder Surfing

After talking about many users needed to be concerned about shoulder surfing. To prevent shoulder surfing, following some best practices that can keep your sensitive information safe is essential. Here are ten ways to prevent shoulder surfing:

●       Use privacy filters 

Privacy filters, also known as privacy screens, are physical filters that attach to the surface of your device. They are designed to narrow the viewing angle of your screen. They prevent others from viewing your screen from any angle except straight-on, making it more difficult for someone to see what you’re doing from a distance. 

●       Use a password manager

.To help users to remember different and difficult passwords, users can use a secured password manager. This tool will help users to store all user names and passwords and give easy access to them when the user needs them. When a user needs to log in to an account stored on the password manager, they do not need to type as the password manager login for them. 

●       Use two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication can provide an extra layer of security. It also gives access to a second form of identification, such as sending a verification code or a call to log in. For example, if you set up Two-factor authentication, the bank will send the user a one-time code to log in that will only be valid for a few minutes. Even if people have access to the user the log-in detail, they won’t be able to enter the code. 

●       Use physical barriers

While entering sensitive information, try to hide it with your physical barriers like body, hand or paper so that it is not visible to the prying eyes. This will make it harder for anyone to see what you’re typing.

●       Log in with Biometrics

Users are advised to enable biometric authentication for logging into their devices or online accounts. Security measures connected with fingerprint or facial recognition make it difficult for hackers to access accounts. 

●       Avoid Public Networks

Public Wi-Fi networks are constantly open to infiltration. It is vulnerable to a man-in-the-middle attack that the attacker can use to watch users enter their details. So, users are advised to avoid public WiFi and use phone hotspots instead. Public WiFi users can also use VPN to encrypt the network connection so that scammers and hackers can’t get access and see what users are doing. 

●       Be cautious of phishing scams.

Phishing scams are a common tactic cybercriminals use to obtain sensitive information. Always be cautious of unsolicited emails, texts, or phone calls asking for personal information.

●       Use strong passwords

Use strong, unique passwords for each account, and avoid using easily guessable information such as your birthdate or pet’s name.

●       Be vigilant

Being alert and taking the necessary precautions can minimize the risk of someone stealing your sensitive information. Shoulder surfing can occur in any public place, so being vigilant and aware of your surroundings is crucial. If you notice someone acting suspiciously or trying to observe your screen, immediately move to a more secure location.

●       Keep your device up to date.

Security patches are frequently included in software updates that resolve known vulnerabilities and protect your device from potential attacks. Keep your device’s operating system and apps updated to stay protected.


Shoulder surfing is a growing threat to cyber-security that can have serious consequences for individuals and businesses. By understanding the risks associated with shoulder surfing and implementing mitigation strategies, you can help protect yourself and your sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands.

Remember to be vigilant and mindful of your surroundings when working with sensitive information. By taking proactive steps to protect yourself against shoulder surfing attacks, you can help safeguard your privacy and maintain the security of your digital assets. 

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