Modern Life

How to protect yourself from “screen creepers” and other prying eyes

Keep your data and personal information safe from shoulder surfers, criminal hackers, and curious co-workers.

By Garage Staff — October 8, 2019

When you’re working on a plane or browsing on your phone while waiting in line at a coffee shop, how do you know the person next to you isn’t peering at your screen? According to a new HP-commissioned survey, there’s an 80% chance they are.

As smartphones, laptops, and connected devices become ever-bigger presences in daily life, opportunities for your personal information to get in front of prying eyes are everywhere — from malicious hackers to “screen creepers” who can’t resist the urge to take a quick peek while you’re looking at a bank account balance or text message. 

More than half of the respondents in HP’s survey said they screen creep out of curiosity — but 23% admitted to more devious intentions, saying they look at others’ screens when they have something to gain. More than eight in 10 respondents said they restrict what they look at in public, out of concern someone else might see.

As we live more of our lives on the devices we carry around with us, our attitudes about privacy are evolving — and so are the ways we can protect ourselves.


In an HP-commissioned survey, one-third of respondents admitted to looking at strangers’ screens, while half said they’ve peeked at the screens of friends and family members.

The psychology of peeking

More likely than not, you’re also guilty of a sneak peek now and then. The growing size of smartphones, the spread of Wi-Fi to more areas, and new laptops with high-definition screens that offer super-wide viewing angles create new opportunities to peek and be peeked on. This “shoulder-surfing” is a high-tech form of human beings’ natural curiosity — like listening in on a conversation at the table next to you at a restaurant, or plopping down on a park bench for some good, old-fashioned people watching. This behavior is usually harmless — one 2017 survey found that shoulder-surfing “mainly occurs in an opportunistic, non-malicious way.” 

Still, most people say they’d feel uncomfortable if the tables were turned and they were being watched. Although 80% of respondents in HP’s survey admitted to looking at other people’s screens, 70% said they’d feel violated if someone looked at theirs. These two common human traits — curiosity and the desire for privacy — clash when it comes to our devices and online lives.

“Privacy is part of the human condition,” says Gennie Gebhart, associate director of research at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit leading the charge for digital privacy. “Everyone needs it, and everyone deserves it.”

Although consumers are concerned about their privacy, many feel under-educated and unprepared to do anything about it. A report from TRUSTe and the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) found that Americans are more concerned about their data privacy than they are about losing their primary source of income, while a Pew Research Center survey found that just 9% of Americans believe they have “a lot of control” over their information. 

Gebhart says in many cases, maintaining your privacy might be easier than you think, as long as you’re aware of your vulnerabilities and vigilant about keeping your data away from unintended viewers. 

“We can just make it harder,” Gebhart says. “That’s enough for most people.”

Connected devices have become such a normal part of everyday life, people might not even realize they’re in front of a camera when they’re using their laptop

Courtesy of HP

Connected devices have become such a normal part of everyday life, people might not even realize they’re in front of a camera when they’re using their laptop

Be aware of your surroundings

When it comes to shielding your screen from a nearby snoop, you are your own first line of defense. Keep an ear and eye open to anyone who is sitting a little too close, and move locations or switch what you’re working on if necessary. It might not be a big deal if someone sees you pulling up a news article, but your taxes or confidential business documents are another story. Even worse, your screen could display login information that could be copied and used later.

Minimize risk in public spaces by choosing a seat where no one is behind you and locking the screen any time you get up. For additional protection when moving around isn’t possible, like on an airplane, plastic screen protectors that make your screen difficult to see from the side can help — but only if you always have them on hand. Devices equipped with an integrated privacy screen like HP Sure View give you built-in protection, with a touch of a button you can automatically darken the edges of your screen so it’s unreadable from any angle. 

While obscuring what’s on your screen can help, it’s still no substitute for situational awareness. The best way to protect against screen creepers is to see them before they can see your screen.

Protect your prints

Screens aren’t the only things that could be viewed without your knowledge. In the HP-commissioned survey, more than half of American office workers said they rush to the printer every time they print something personal to prevent someone else from seeing it. 

That concern seems to be well-founded: Seventy-five percent of respondents admitted they intentionally look at documents they find left in their office’s printer tray. Forty percent said they would not only look at an obviously confidential document, but would consider taking a picture, making a copy, or even taking it. 

While working in communal spaces, you can avoid exposing sensitive information by using a tool like HP’s Access Control Secure Pull Print software, which lets users keep documents waiting in the cloud until the user is present and can release it with a touch from an employee’s ID badge or by entering a PIN.

And while it has long been common for office printers to be connected to internal networks, now they’re often connected to the internet, which comes with all the same risks as other smart devices like front-door cameras and smart refrigerators. 

“Any device that you put onto your network could potentially become an attack vector,” says Shivaun Albright, HP’s chief technologist for printing security solutions. “The adversaries are becoming more sophisticated.”

To keep your data secure, Albright encourages anyone using a printer at home or in the office to make sure to set a password when connecting to the internet.

Watch that webcam

Being filmed without knowing it would be a nightmare for many people — like something straight out of the dystopian TV series Black Mirror,  but unfortunately, the idea is not so far fetched. A man in Ohio was charged last year after allegedly creating and deploying malware that, among other things, took over webcams and microphones, allowing him to watch and record people and steal their data.

A recent HP survey on webcam security found less than half of people in the US and Canada felt comfortable leaving their laptop open in their room, and eight in 10 were aware their webcam can be hacked. Women were more concerned about hacking than men, saying they were less willing to do things like work out or eat a meal in front of their webcam. 

For some, the issue struck close to home — one in 10 surveyed said they knew someone who had their webcam hacked, or had their own compromised. People have turned to tape, stickers, and even gum to cover their webcam. Now, tech companies are responding to address their concerns, with new features like HP’s Webcam Kill Switch, a physical button which lets you cut off power to the webcam, making it unhackable.

Courtesy of HP

The HP Webcam Kill Switch lets users physically cut power to their webcam, making it unhackable.

Make yourself harder to hack

The threats are real, but so are the ways to protect yourself. And it doesn’t have to be daunting. Being aware of the potentially prying eyes around you and taking the physical precautions outlined here should be part of a broader set of routine behaviors to keep your data safe.

“Security is not always about the technology alone,” says Brett Hunt, HP’s director for worldwide security solutions. “It often involves giving people the right tools to guide them toward best practices.”

Update software to ensure you’ve got the latest protections, use a password manager to make your code harder to crack or remember, and whenever possible, use two-factor authentication, a process that texts a secondary password to your phone so even if someone sees your password over your shoulder, they may not be able to use it. Like washing your hands and brushing your teeth, these are fundamental steps everyone should take for the most basic level of protection.

“People say ‘please tell me something else that is more exciting,’” says Kelvin Coleman, executive director of the National Cybersecurity Alliance (NCSA). “But the tips don’t change.”

For ongoing safety, Coleman suggests that what should change is your own attitude toward your data. Remember that people are trying to steal it — or just see it — because it’s worth something to them. For criminal hackers, it might have monetary value. For casual screen creepers, it might just be a sense of connection or knowing more about you. Regardless, you should treat your personal information like other valuable items in your life. While nothing is completely foolproof, Coleman says taking simple steps to protect you and your technology can go a long way.

“You can make it so much more challenging for them,” Coleman says. Just like any thief or intruder, “[they’re] going to go to the unlocked door first.”


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