We may not believe it, but before the first computer was built or even designed before the internet was an information superhighway, people were hacking private information. The original hack was and remains the simplest of them all – taking an unsolicited look at the information that’s really none of our business.

The visual hack only needs two variables – a person or small group of people accessing information that pertains to them and someone who accesses that data when it doesn’t. We’re exploring visual hacking, sometimes known as shoulder surfing, and what we can all do to protect our data from prying eyes.

Shoulder Surfing

How common is shoulder surfing?

A 2017 study showed that a staggering 87% of mobile workers had noticed strangers taking a sneaky glance at their monitors in public spaces. Of course, sometimes people are just a bit nosy – they unthinkingly rest their gaze on our laptops with no intention of stealing data.

Perhaps they’re just curious. However, it’s never possible to know who’s just daydreaming and who’s got an unhealthy interest in our work. You can see the full article here.

It’s not just work – visual hacking

Shoulder surfing and “screen stranger danger” isn’t just limited to people who are using their laptops for work. Whether we’re accessing personal social media accounts on laptops or watching a box set while travelling, we don’t want someone peering at our screens. It’s an invasion of privacy, full stop.

Here are some tips to prevent visual hackers from gaining access to sensitive information on your laptop or monitor screen.

1. Where possible, avoid working in public places to avoid shoulder surfing

Whether it’s the airport departure lounge, the train carriage or the high street café, when you’re using your computer in public, you’re at risk from visual hacking.

2. Block the view

If it’s practical, block the view to your monitor. Use your bag or your back, tilt your screen, or reposition your chair to make it impossible for anyone to see what you’re working on. Buy a privacy screen. A privacy screen or privacy filter is one way to stop potential data thieves from taking a sidelong glance at your information. You may have seen them used by bank clerks. They use blackout technology to make the screen appear black when viewed from an angle.

3. Be vigilant

When you’re aware of the possibility of someone shoulder surfing around you, you’re better equipped to avoid it. Check out the people around you. Is anyone sitting too close or displaying body language that makes you uncomfortable? Also, remember that people can use their smartphones to take photographs that may capture your screen and the information it displays. Don’t leave your computer unattended. An unattended computer in a public space is not only a theft risk but also a data security risk. Take it with you wherever you go.

4. GDPR and visual hacking

The European General Data Protection Regulation came into effect on 25 May 2018. The regulations cover the handling and protection of personal data. All organisations are required to process this information securely and although the greatest risks are in the transferring of data online, it’s wise to be aware of visual hacking risks too. If you’re working with personal data in a public space where visual hacking could take place, you’re legally responsible for that data, just as you would be if your system was preyed upon by cyber attackers.

It is very important to protect your screen from prying eyes. Just be following the advice above will help keep your information secure. Don’t forget to take a look at our range of Privacy Screen Filters for that added protection.


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