In Defense of Peeking at a Stranger’s iPhone Screen

It’s not “shoulder surfing” or “visual hacking.” It’s people-watching.

Woman peeking at a man's smart phone while he types.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

On the day of this year’s Women’s March, I rode an uptown subway next to a lady who was engaged in a tiny photo-editing project on her smartphone: She was photoshopping a picture of the Earth so that it was wearing a pussy hat. She was struggling—it’s not the easiest concept to execute, even for a non-amateur designer working on a full-size machine—but I was charmed by the sight. In my memory, she was middle-aged, perhaps not the most likely user of a mobile photo-editing app, and I just loved the way that what was happening in the “real world”—our train car was crowded with people holding signs and dressed to protest—mirrored what was happening in her virtual space.

That’s not the only time I’ve found myself appreciating what someone was doing on his or her phone in public. I pulled out my own phone a few months ago to text a co-worker when I noticed a young woman near me scrolling through the Astro Poets Twitter feed—we had just been discussing it, what are the odds! I also like to check out what music people are listening to, which dumb phone game is currently the time waster of choice, or, if I can crane my neck enough, what articles or e-books my fellow commuters are reading. Spying on what other people are watching on an airplane is a less risky version of this satisfyingly innocuous mode of nosiness. So imagine my surprise when I came across a Wall Street Journal feature, published Wednesday, advising readers to watch out for phone snoopers over their shoulders: People who peek at other people’s mobile devices are apparently the latest scourge technology hath wrought.

I’m with-it enough to know we should feel guilty for every second we spend looking at our phones, but here I was thinking that looking at other people look at their phones was still fair game. Whoops.

The Journal piece implies that spying on people’s screens is rude, a privacy violation even. This makes “shoulder surfing,” as the Journal calls it, sound way more intentional than it tends to be. We all know what it’s like to suddenly get engrossed in what someone else is doing in public. Even if you’re actively allowing your eyes to wander, if it’s possible to see the screen without any dramatic measures, spy technology, or phone-tapping, how much of a violation can it really be?

I’ve given it some thought, and I’m not going to stop screen snooping. Instead, I’m going to defend the practice: It is perfectly fine to read along as you watch people in your line of vision write emails and compose texts and scroll through the internet. In fact, it’s an extension, and basically a harmless one, of one of life’s greatest pleasures: people-watching.

Let’s re-examine some of the behavior the Journal seems to suggest is rude:

Sarah Johnson was riding the New York subway home from work recently when she noticed a woman peering over her shoulder, reading the email she was writing on her phone.

“Should I move the screen closer so you can have a better look?” Ms. Johnson asked, turning in her seat to look at the woman.

With all due respect to Ms. Johnson, I feel compelled to point out that perhaps it is she, the person who snapped at a stranger, rather than the person who happened to get caught looking in the wrong direction, who would rightfully be called rude in this situation. If she doesn’t want people to read her emails, maybe she should write them during the many hours a day she isn’t jammed into a crowded subway car. Or she could realize that in a city of millions of people, the likelihood of something bad happening because a stranger saw her email is practically zero. It’s not like she has classified government intel in there! (Even if she does, it’s not like our current administration is so great at making sure things stay classified.)

This does not mean that by nature of being in public, people give up all of their rights to privacy. I do think it’s rude when people take pictures of strangers to make fun of their outfits or whatever—I sometimes see this on social media—but can you really blame someone for just looking? For angling their head too strongly in your direction? Come on, we don’t live in Gilead yet.

An important caveat: Maybe don’t try to read the things that surface on the phones of people you actually know, or could know, particularly when they’re writing to people other than you. Or if you do, don’t say anything. That seems like a fair line to draw with people you presumably respect. The woman in the Journal story who was sitting next to Bill Fish at a school talent show and decided to ask him if the “Nicole Fish” he was texting was his wife because she wanted to make sure? She probably should have kept her mouth shut. But when it comes to strangers? Go nuts. Snoop away.

If you care about other people and have any curiosity about the world around you, it’s normal to pay attention to what you overhear people talking about. Noticing what books people are reading on public transportation has long been regarded as one of the perks of urban life. Is observing people’s digital ephemera really so much different? We live on our phones now, but really, how much does this differ from watching someone sketch in public, or noticing a teenager studying her notes for school? Smartphones render us machine-like in all kinds of ways, but stepping back to observe how other people interact with them seems like a good way to break up the ever-present digital ennui.

It’s not that I think people don’t deserve a reasonable expectation of privacy even when they’re in public; they do. But it goes back to the etiquette of overhearing conversation among strangers in your presence: They shouldn’t be expected to share every single thing they say with the entire class, but they should also be well aware that they should wait until they’re somewhere else to say anything confidential. And for the person listening, sometimes not being able to help overhearing something turns into snooping so gradually that you don’t even notice it—which seems more like a triumph of human curiosity than a privacy violation, if you ask me.

Our tech-overrun modern society is frequently compared to a panopticon, where we have to assume we’re under constant surveillance. I would argue it’s corporations and data that should trouble us much more than the nosy person sitting at the next table over in the coffee shop. Either way, as long as we’re stuck in a panopticon, no one’s going to stop me from a little screen snooping.