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Is Someone Watching?

netShoulder surfing is a term used to describe a person who looks over another person’s shoulder as data is entered onto a device such as a computer, smartphone, ATM or PIN pad.  Virtually any public area is at risk for shoulder surfing where you are entering personal information such as passwords and PINs.

Criminals use this technique to gather information with the use of eyesight or other optical devices, such as mini camcorders and camera phones in hopes of gaining access to your personal accounts or to read your personal information such as emails and financial statements displayed on your screen.  Even from a distance of 15 or 20 feet, sharp-eyed criminals can see your screen or entered data.

Shoulder surfers can be found around ATMs and other cash machines.  These machines can be found in convenience stores, parking lots, sporting venues, outside of buildings, and even in the local DMV office.  Public places such as airports and internet cafés can also be targeted for shoulder surfing attacks.

Protect yourself

Always watch your surroundings by staying alert, not allowing yourself to be distracted.  At a cash machine, stand as close as possible to the machine.  Cover the key pad with your free hand as you enter your PIN to protect it from being seen by others.   If you notice someone watching you or crowding over you too closely, cancel the transaction and go to another machine.

At work, try positioning your computer screen away from others.  If possible, make sure passwords are not visibly seen when typing them in.  As you type, the shoulder surfer would then only see characters such as dots or stars instead of the actual password.  Many devices have a hide password checkbox or link to hide the password while you are entering the characters.

When traveling, be mindful of people around you at airports, airplanes, bus and train stations as you use your devices.  Also be extremely careful while using your devices in café environments to surf the internet.

Summary of tips

  1. Watch your surroundings
  2. Stand as close as possible to cash machines
  3. Move your computer screen away from others
  4. Mask or hide passwords on devices
  5. Cover key pad with your free hand to better protect your PIN

Next Tuesday’s topic:  Hyperlinks

Image Credit

Christina Bonds

Christina Bonds is an Application Specialist in the Web Technology department at Elon University.

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