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What is Shoulder Surfing?

by Cyberguy | Last Updated | November 29, 2021
Cyber Dictionary|CyberSecurity - Consumer|CyberSecurity - SMB

Cybercrime is not just about using sophisticated technology to launch malicious activities. Most people associate it with some techies remotely accessing computer systems to steal sensitive data for illegal purposes.

It’s also not about running away with someone else’s laptop or smartphone to gain access to a bank account and credit card credentials to steal money or identity. 

In fact, a fleeting look over the victim’s shoulder is enough for cybercriminals to get hold of usernames, passwords and other login credentials. This is the essence of shoulder surfing. As simple as it may seem, this overlooked practice can pose a real danger to individuals and businesses.

What is shoulder surfing?

Shoulder surfing is a form of social engineering. So before we can understand what shoulder surfing is, let’s delve a bit into social engineering. 

What is shoulder surfing

In cybercrime, social engineering is a technique of manipulating people by exploiting human error, lack of knowledge and weakness to gain access to sensitive information. Attackers instill heightened emotions in their victims, such as:

An enhanced emotional state, coupled with urgency and trust, makes people take irrational or risky actions, such as revealing sensitive personal information. 

So what is shoulder surfing?  

Shoulder surfing is a form of social engineering that enables cybercriminals to gather information just by looking over their victims’ shoulders. The aim of shoulder surfing is to obtain personal data, such as usernames, passwords or personal identification numbers (PINs), bank account numbers or credit card numbers.

How does shoulder surfing happen?

A shoulder surfing attack works in two ways: at close range or from a longer range.

Close range attempts are pretty straightforward and attackers don’t need technical skills to perform this method. Using their prying eyes, shoulder surfers simply, but covertly, observe another person’s computer or device screen or keyboard to obtain sensitive information. As the victim enters information onto the device, the attacker is likely writing, typing or recording the information somewhere.

Long range shoulder surfing attacks happen when observation is done from afar. This necessitates the use of binoculars, miniature cameras, video cameras, or phone cameras. 

Whether close or long range, shoulder surfing can happen in the workplace or in public places like coffee shops, bars, restaurants, hotels, airport lounges or ATM queues. 

Attackers can also use the shoulder surfing technique when people give their personal information in phone conversations or pay their bills over the counter. In this case, they may use a hidden microphone or nano-amplifier to record the personal information.

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What are the types of shoulder surfing?

Shoulder surfing has two types.

Direct observation. This type of attack happens when a shoulder surfer looks directly over the shoulder of the victim and peeks into the victim’s device to obtain information, such as bank account or credit card credentials.

Recording. In this type of shoulder surfing, the victims are recorded on video to be analyzed at a later date to extract the desired information.

Examples of Shoulder Surfing

Shoulder surfing long predates laptops and cellphones. It goes back to when criminals spied on pay phone users using phone card numbers to make calls. Back then, the criminals watched and took note of the phone card numbers that they could use for their own calls. The criminals moved to stealing ATM PINs and other card payment systems at gas stations and stores.

Some examples of shoulder surfing

Shoulder surfers can strike in several ways. Most shoulder surfing attacks happen at ATMs and kiosks. Some can happen at crowded places where criminals have the advantage of being unrecognized. Here are some examples:

What are the consequences for shoulder surfing crimes?

For the victims, the consequences can be heavy financial losses, stolen identities, hijacked accounts and compromised security systems. 

There are consequences as well for shoulder surfing attackers. Stealing an individual’s bank account, credit card account or digital identity through shoulder surfing is considered a crime and punishable by law. The crimes can range from misdemeanors to theft, fraud or felony. The criminals can be subjected to hefty fines, settlements or jail time.

Shoulder surfing crimes can also lead to civil damages awards to compensate victims. In many cases, the organizations where the crimes happen are required to update their security policies.

Steps for preventing shoulder surfing

Set up a privacy filter

A privacy filter, or computer privacy screen, is a thin sheet of plastic that’s placed over your monitor or display panel to prevent prying eyes from seeing information. It limits visibility to only the person seated directly in front of the computer. Anyone attempting a glance from the left or right will only be able to see a black screen. 

Tilt, incline, slant or shift your device

This technique is especially effective for smartphones. Depending on where the unwanted gaze is coming from, you can simply set an angle for your device to block the visibility of intruding eyes. For laptops and tablets, you can tilt the screen downwards slightly or close your laptop to take a break.

Block their view

Take this more proactive move if you’re protecting sensitive work documents. You can use a free hand to cover the side of your smartphone that contains the important data. If you’re using a laptop, cover the side of the screen that needs protection with a cardboard sheet, a book, a piece of cloth or anything that can block the view of unauthorized individuals.

How to Prevent Shoulder Surfing

Sit out of view

When working remotely in a public place, such as a coffee shop, make it a point to find a seat against a wall to keep away all those wandering eyes in front of you. Make sure the wall isn’t mirrored or all glass. If you’re sitting outside, try to avoid the crowd and set against a solid wall.

Maintain awareness of your surroundings

Watch for people, recording devices and other unwanted movements. Visual hacking is simple,  quick and goes unnoticed so be very vigilant of your surroundings.

Use password manager

A password manager helps you store, manage and use your passwords securely. You don’t have to enter your password whenever you want to access something. The password manager will do it for you. Since there is no password to enter, there is no password to steal.

Protect your PINs

Create a PIN that’s hard guess. Memorize it and keep it secret. Always shield your PIN when using an ATM by using your freehand, a purse or magazine to cover the keypad. Watch for people lurking while you’re at the ATM.

Avoid using public networks

Free public Wi-Fi  systems are usually poorly configured and are prone to hacking and other cyber attacks. They are also often unencrypted, making it easy for criminals to hack them. If you must use a public Wi-F-, we recommend that you use a virtual private network or VPN. Better yet, stay at home and work from there.

Set strong passwords

Create strong passwords that can’t be cracked by brute force, dictionary attack or phishing. The best passwords are long and contain a good mix of letters, numbers and symbols, yet easy to remember. Avoid common substitutions and memorable keyboard paths like “qwerty”. Avoid reusing passwords that can lead to the compromise of one being the compromise of all.

Use biometric authentication

Biometric authentication is the strongest physical security technique that’s used for identification and authentication. It is hard to replicate because every retina, fingerprint and any other facial recognition feature is unique. So that even shoulder surfers steal your information, they will not be able to pass the biometric test.

Use two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication is a security mechanism in which individuals provide two authentication factors to be able to access their accounts. The second factor may be a one-time password (OTP) or personal identification number (PIN). For more protection, you can also add another layer of security, such as biometrics or answering a security question.

Use contactless payment methods

A contactless payment method refers to a secure way of paying for products and services using a debit, credit, smartcard or other payment devices that applies radio frequency identification (RFID) and near-field communication (NFC). As its name suggests, there is no contact between the payment mode and the point of sale (POS) terminal. The payment takes effect when the mode of payment (debit card) is tapped near the POS.

Monitor your credit regularly

Monitor your credit regularly to get ahead of shoulder surfing. If there are transactions you don’t recognize in your credit account, immediately report the matter to the credit bureaus, particularly Experian, TransUnion or Equifax.

Our final thoughts: Shoulder surfing may seem uncomplicated, but the risks are real and ever increasing. Even with just one compromised device, the destruction can spread across all devices in the organization. As in other cyber threats, awareness, vigilance and prevention are the best deterrents of shoulder surfing and its devastating effects.

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