Peek­ing at screens

Here are some rea­sons why you can’t stop look­ing at other peo­ple’s screens, writes John Her­rman

New Straits Times - - SUNDAY VIBES / LIVING -

OTHER peo­ple’s screens are ev­ery­where, once you start to no­tice them. They’re col­lec­tively most ob­vi­ous at night, as they bob through the city, creat­ing a new, hand-height layer to the am­bi­ent lights, or when held up at con­certs, like lighters. Dur­ing the day, other peo­ple’s screens hover around us as we wait in line for cof­fee, or as we sit and drink our cof­fee, or as we take our cof­fee on the bus or train.

Other peo­ple’s screens are win­dows into their lives, and brains, and re­la­tion­ships and work — into their pol­i­tics, anx­i­eties, fail­ures and ad­dic­tions. They tend to ap­pear be­tween 0.3 and 0.9 me­tre away from other peo­ple’s faces, de­pend­ing.

Other peo­ple’s screens are also a lot smaller than they used to be, when they were perched al­most ex­clu­sively on desks and ta­bles at of­fices and in homes, where the pres­ence of strangers is rare or wor­ry­ing by de­fault. In 2010, 27 per­cent of Amer­i­can peo­ple car­ried portable screens; by the end of 2016, it was more than 80 per­cent. Over the same pe­riod, the largest iPhone screen grew from 3.5 inches, from one cor­ner to the other, to 5.5. Other peo­ple’s screens got clearer and brighter, from a wider range of an­gles: flat on a desk; held low, for a glance dur­ing din­ner; held out for a group to see; and of course, spied over a shoul­der, on the way to work.

Other peo­ple’s screens have changed the phe­nom­e­non of “shoul­der surf­ing” — peek­ing over shoul­ders, of­ten with ma­li­cious in­tent — or so a team of re­searchers at the Lud­wig Max­i­m­il­ian Univer­sity of Mu­nich sur­mised. Shoul­der surf­ing is why your pass­words show up as dots or as­ter­isks when you type them out on your com­puter or your phone. But most of the lit­er­a­ture on it is se­cu­rity-fo­cused, a re­sponse, per­haps, to ques­tions of how best to safe­guard one’s in­for­ma­tion, dur­ing a time be­fore portable screens.


In a world in which other peo­ple’s screens are vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore, there were “no de­tailed in­ves­ti­ga­tions of shoul­der surf­ing in­ci­dents and their real-world im­pli­ca­tions,” wrote the re­searchers in Mu­nich. So they dis­trib­uted a sur­vey, ask­ing a range of ques­tions about a hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nario in which a fic­tional char­ac­ter named “Vic” is look­ing at the mo­bile de­vice of an­other fic­tional char­ac­ter named “Cas,” and Cas re­mains “not aware” of it.

Vic and Cas, who, dis­arm­ingly, “could both be you or any­one else” are shown as stick fig­ures to help par­tic­i­pants re­spond to prompts like: “Do you know of a **real** sit­u­a­tion in which this hap­pened?” and “What ex­actly could Vic see on the screen (e.g. text, pic­tures, pass­words/PINs, maps, videos, apps, games, etc.)?”

The re­sponses to the sur­vey did not re­veal a world of thieves and vic­tims, ex­actly. In their anal­y­sis, the re­searchers sug­gested that “shoul­der surf­ing was mostly ca­sual and op­por­tunis­tic.” It was “most com­mon among strangers, in pub­lic trans­port, dur­ing com­mut­ing times, and in­volved a smart­phone in al­most all cases,” they said. Few par­tic­i­pants in­di­cated ma­li­cious in­tent when they ad­mit­ted to act­ing like Vic and spy­ing on Cas. “How­ever,” the re­searchers wrote, “both users and ob­servers ex­pressed neg­a­tive feel­ings in the re­spec­tive sit­u­a­tion, such as em­bar­rass­ment and anger or guilt and un­ease.”

What did sub­jects see, on other peo­ple’s screens? Nearly half the time the an­swer was text. Then pic­tures, then games, then — in the shoul­der surf­ing tra­di­tion — “cre­den­tials,” or pass­words, more specif­i­cally. More specif­i­cally, in or­der of fre­quency, other peo­ple’s phones re­vealed: in­stant mes­sag­ing, Face­book, email and news.

What did sub­jects “ob­serve,” on other peo­ple’s screens? “Re­la­tion­ships / third per­sons,” most of all, but then in­ter­ests and hob­bies and “plans.” Why did they look at other peo­ple’s screens? “Cu­rios­ity” and “bore­dom” tied for first, with noth­ing else com­ing close.

No­body re­ally likes the idea that other peo­ple are look­ing at their screens. When they imag­ined be­ing ob­served, sur­vey par­tic­i­pants re­ported neg­a­tive feel­ings — that they felt they had been spied on, ha­rassed, or that they were an­gry — in 37 cases, with just one re­spon­dent re­port­ing “pos­i­tive feel­ings.” (And “amused” that some­one was watch­ing.)


Other peo­ple’s screens are works in progress: they are tense and short texts with no con­text, typed and re­typed, and then, for those un­der­ground, sent at the next stop; they are ex­traor­di­nar­ily long mes­sages, ex­changes of lengths I was not aware were pos­si­ble on a phone, from which one in­stantly turns away in shame af­ter spot­ting the word “di­vorce;” they are self­ies get­ting touched up, and then dis­carded; they are seem­ingly in­fi­nite group mes­sage chains full of re­li­gious af­fir­ma­tions; they are work emails with a lot of talk about clients, and the client, and our client, be­cause the train is a place of work now, just like the of­fice, just like the home.

Other peo­ple’s screens make rec­om­men­da­tions, sort of. There is no “How are you en­joy­ing that book?” with other peo­ple’s screens, only clues. Other peo­ple’s screens play more ac­tion movies than you might ex­pect, and some­times far more in­ter­est­ing TV, not that you can tell what’s go­ing on, or what the show is even called. Other peo­ple’s screens make you aware that it is quite hard to Google a game when the only way you can de­scribe is as a very pretty puzzle with lots of poly­gons that need to be matched or con­nected. Other peo­ple’s screens sug­gest that peo­ple text each other in an as­tound­ing variety of ways, but mostly in What­sApp. Other peo­ple spend a lot of time try­ing to fig­ure out what to lis­ten to, on their screens.

Other peo­ple’s screens have cam­eras on the back, and so some­times other peo­ple’s screens go vi­ral. Bet­ter yet, last year, a se­ries of pho­tos taken of a man who was per­sis­tently and ob­vi­ously look­ing at other peo­ple’s screens — some who turned away, and some who didn’t — was retweeted more than 51,000 times. Screens, cap­tured and posted on pur­pose, are one of the sources of the raw con­tent that fu­els the mod­ern com­mer­cial in­ter­net, and so look­ing at other peo­ple’s screens may be un­der­stood not just as an in­va­sion of pri­vacy, but maybe also a form of theft. Bet­ter not to look at other peo­ple’s screens, any­way, lest you miss a chance to wit­ness all the other peo­ple do­ing it. (On a half-hour ride, in a sin­gle crowded car: no fewer than six.)

Other peo­ple’s screens may also be a brief his­tor­i­cal aber­ra­tion. Phones now un­lock by scan­ning their own­ers’ faces, and, sep­a­rately, can tell if you’re smil­ing in a photo; it is not much of a jump that they could tell when other peo­ple are watch­ing, too, on a train or else­where. More broadly, it may just seem strange, some­day, ac­cord­ing to a few con­ceiv­able fu­tures, that other peo­ple’s screens were in their hands for a while, out in the world, in­stead of in front of their eyes, or at­tached to their brains.

For this mo­ment, though, other peo­ple’s screens will be to us as ours are to them, which is to say ev­ery­where, and show­ing us just enough to re­mind us that, re­ally, we should just mind our own.

A sub­way rider uses a smart­phone in New York

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