Passwords. Biometrics. BIOS backups. Anti-viruses. Businesses put a lot of time and effort into protecting sensitive information, but many overlook the most low-tech form of theft—stealing a glance at someone's computer screen. Or as it's also known: visual hacking.
Are you vulnerable to visual hacking? Yes. But you're not helpless.
Here's what you need to know about visual hacking, and how recent innovations can help you protect your on-screen information from prying eyes.
What is it?
Visual hacking is the act of viewing or capturing sensitive, confidential, or private information for unauthorized use.
Visually-hacked information can be displayed on a PC or electronic device, or it could be on a paper document left out in the open—such as on your desk, in a print tray, or even at your local coffee shop. And it's a surprisingly common occurrence.
From casual evenings with your family to work sessions with your colleagues, chances are you've glanced at someone's screen and seen something they didn't want you to see—whether they're surfing social media, shopping online, or handling personal information.
When there is sensitive information and criminal intent involved, however, what might seem like a simple annoyance or transgression can quickly transform into a serious problem.
How dangerous is it?
A visual hacker may only need one piece of information to expose a company to a data breach, which in turn can cost companies millions of dollars in lost business, regulatory fines, and legal expenses. The average annual cost of cybercrime last year was $15.4 million per large U.S. company.
Visual hacking also has extremely high success rates.
In a recent visual hacking experiment conducted for 3M and the Visual Privacy Advisory Council, 90% of visual hacking attempts were successful, with nearly four pieces of private information visually hacked per trial.2 It's a very fast process, too. It takes a hacker less than 15 minutes to complete their first visual hack 45% of the time.
And the risk is increasing thanks to an ongoing shift towards open workspaces, where walls and cubicles have come down. In that same 3M study, open workspaces resulted in nearly 50% more information types being visually hacked versus a traditional office layout.
Visual hacking can also impact employee productivity, given almost 60% of employees take their work outside of office walls. A similar study by Ponemon Institute also found that employees using a visual privacy solution can be twice as productive when working in close proximity to others.
Who is vulnerable?
According to researchers, visual hacking is a pervasive problem that “occurs in all industry sectors and at all levels of an organization.” It doesn't matter if you're an intern or a C-suite executive—if you access or handle sensitive information, you're vulnerable to visual hacking.
While every hacker will have their own purpose and target, popular targets of visual hacking include:
- Payment Card Information (PCI)
- Personally Identifiable Information (PII)
- Account numbers
- Credit history
- Social security numbers
Luckily, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your business from the dangers of visual hacking.
How do I protect my sensitive information?
- Step 1: Before you access sensitive information, assess your situation to see how vulnerable you are. If you're in a crowded location, such as a coffee shop or an airplane, consider relocating to somewhere more private or working on something else until you're less exposed.
- Step 2: Discuss the issue with senior management and work to implement organization-wide awareness and prevention training. In other words, institute a visual privacy strategy.
- Step 3: Assess whether employees, contractors, and visitors have too much access to sensitive information in workspaces and/or offsite locations. If so, consider blocking off parts of the office from visitors and non-department members or setting up internal firewalls.
- Step 4: Invest in the right tools, such as the HP Sure View integrated privacy screen that helps to protect information on your notebook screen at a touch of a button. HP Sure View is available as an option on the HP EliteBook 1040 G3 and 840 G3—the world's only PCs with integrated privacy screens. Activated by pressing FN + F2, visual protection starts to occur when others are looking at the screen at 35° from the center. Beyond that, the content is obscured by reducing up to 95% of the visible light, hindering any would-be visual hackers.
For your existing notebook PCs, HP Privacy Filter designed by 3M™
delivers similar functionalities as HP Sure View in a removable, flat front surface (the thinnest solution of its kind to date). When applied, the notebook screen fades to black starting at a 30-degree viewing angle and effectively “blacks out” the screen beyond a 60-degree viewing angle. HP Privacy Filter supports both touch and non-touch notebooks up to 15.6” and is available for select models in the 600-1000 HP notebook series.
It's time for action
Your security is only as strong as its weakest link. Visual hacking is a potent threat to businesses and individuals, but with a sound approach and the right security tools you can effectively safeguard your sensitive information against prying eyes. Start here to establish a secure visual privacy strategy—and remember to follow up at regular intervals to gauge the effectiveness and adjust accordingly.
 Ponemon Institute, Global Report on the Cost of Cyber Crime
 Ponemon Institute and 3M, 3M Visual Hacking Experiment
 Based on currently available, in-market PCs, as of April 2016. Available on select HP EliteBooks only.
 Pew Research Center, Technology's impact on Workers
 Ponemon Institute, Visual Privacy Productivity Study