Type: Review
Pages: 5 | Words: 1376
Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Shoulder surfing is defined classically as someone standing over one’s shoulder to get hold of confidential and sensitive information as their attention is engaged in completing a form using your personal information, or entering their PIN or password, or even when dialling a telephone number. It is a serious an invasion of privacy and as blatantly intrusive as someone looking over one’s shoulder and reading along while they are texting or on the computer. Shoulder surfing is a practice that lately has been undertaken by many organized institutions in the hiring and enrolment processes. Apparently during an interview prospective employers can request the interviewee to access their facebook or other social media pages, and go through the postings while they look on.  There is a also a growing trend in employment interviews where would-be employers inquire if the applicant has social media pages, and if yes, they also ask them to provide the password to access that page. According to critics of this practice,  it is legal for now, for a prospective employer, to insist on access to social media profile, page and photos. It is a form of illegal eavesdropping which places job-seekers in a difficult position, as it is their wish to be employed but also their right to have privacy.

An example is when the Maryland Justice Department of Corrections asked a prospective employee to give them access and password to his facebook page, which they claimed was in the interest of prison and public safety in case this person had ties to gangs. This is the argument used by most government agencies, which argue that intense screening of employees is needful for the safety of the public. What is more worrisome is the fact that not only employment departments are employing shoulder surfing as a screening tool, but so are universities and colleges during student enrolment and to keep track of the kinds of information students post on their walls. Shoulder surfing is mostly done to student athletes by requiring them to “friend†their coach or compliance officer in order to have access to posts behind the privacy wall of students. In some cases this regulation is mandatory as is the case at the University of North Carolina. Although their reasons are not as justifiable as the justice department’s interest in public safety, they claim the need to monitor the activity of all people involved to avoid embarrassing trash taking that is serious enough to violate NCAA rules of conduct which would embarrass both the athlete and the university they represent, which could damage their fund-raising ability.

Shoulder surfacing in collegiate circles is not restricted only to athletes, but also is practiced on scholarship applicants. Sometimes scholarship endowers will review an applicant’s social media sites such as facebook, twitter and linkedin to look for behaviour that could reflect adversely on the scholarship provider. Such behaviours include racially motivated insults, drinking, and drug use and so on. Upon research it was found that up to 33% of scholarship providers denied scholarships to applicants based on the content of their social media sites. On the other hand, positive indicators of an applicant’s worthiness resulted in their receiving the scholarship at least 25% of the time. The findings are that maintanane of a positive self image on social media websites was more rewarding because of its positive reflection on the institution with which the student was associated.  Conversely, a bad attitude and poor choices in which content to display would be adversely rewarded.

Although the reasons for the practice of shoulder surfing are seemingly legitimate, there are still concerns over how the practice violates people’s civil rights. The U.S first amendment awards the right to free speech and to air grievances of whatever sort. Social media sites like facebook allow people to do just that among people they feel connected to enough to air their opinions. It is also normal and to be expected that social media sites are places where people feel free to vent about neighbours, friends, bosses or relatives in whom they have displeasure.


Shoulder surfing is a practice that seriously violates a person’s sense of privacy and hence individuality and autonomy. That companies and schools would demand people to all have the same kind of lifestyle to reflect positively on them for financial reasons is an outrageous and ridiculous expectation. After all, different people have different backgrounds, beliefs and ideologies regarding right and wrong. In a land like America, the land of the free, it is absurd that one cannot be accepted for who they are and are likely to be discriminated against for voicing their opinions on a public, free social media website. That companies would use shoulder surfing as a tool to screen out people who would not fit in with their ideals of employees is discriminatory and unlawful. In the same way that no one should be discriminated against because of their race or sexual orientation, no one should be discriminated against because of their social media preferences. It is almost as if companies and scholarship benefactors judge the work output of an individual based on their social media interactions. It is a well known fact that human beings compartmentalise parts of their lives and hence it is by no means certain that the same character portrayed on social media pages will determine the work/ academic/ sport ethic of an individual.

Personally, I have nothing to hide and although I do not support the practice of shoulder surfing, I would not miss the opportunity to be employed or to get a scholarship because I would not reveal my facebook page contents. It would affect me neither adversely nor positively. That is the dilemma most people face. It would seem the need for employment or scholarships, whichever the case, puts them into a corner in which they have to comply with the demands of the prospective employer. It is a violation of privacy, yes, but on the other hand, companies and organizations do have the right to protect their reputations. It seems like it is  a no-win situation because the trade-off requires that one of the party makes a sacrifice. And as the one needing employment, or a scholarship, the applicant is the one with more to lose if they do not comply.

Social Media sites serve a variety of functions including being a medium to encourage self expression, some of issues may be controversial but people have a legal right to vent privately, without prejudice. The matter of privacy is protected and guaranteed by the fourth amendment in the constitution, which states that people have the right to protect their homes, articles and property against sudden and unlawful searches.(p 388, paragraph 2). This surely includes the articles on the World Wide Web, as the language on the bill of rights is broad enough. To defend this right, currently only the state of Illinois has adopted laws against shoulder surfing (p. 388), and Maryland has passed a bill denying would-be employers access to the applicant’s social web pages. This promises to hold employers accountable and charge them with a violation of the law if they refuse to hire a person because of failure to supply social media information. Legislators in California are also trying to ban the practice. The chief privacy officer of facebook has expressed her opinion against the practice of shoulder surfing stating it is an infringement on the privacy of people arguing that requiring people to provide their personal account information is a direct violation of the terms and conditions of use of facebook which forbid the sharing of passwords. Therefore it is clear that shoulder surfing is a practice that would require prospective employees to do something that is also illegal by violating terms of use of social media sites. The fact that some states have taken action to pass a law against it, that is proof enough that it is a clear violation of the fourth amendment.

Since, however, this practice is not yet completely illegal, advice given to people job hunting or otherwise is to self Google information on themselves and upon finding information that could be incriminating against them, to delete it.. This is a solution that will ensure a level playing field with their would-be employers or prospective scholarship benefactors.

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