Visual Privacy and the Mobile Worker

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Securing the display of sensitive information among a growing mobile workforce

The mobile workforce today exceeds 96 million U.S. workers and will grow to more than 105 million in 2020, according to a recent IDC study. At that point, mobile workers will make up nearly 75 percent of the U.S. workforce.[1]

The surge in mobile workers has benefited businesses and workers alike. For businesses, it’s created new opportunities to boost productivity, connect employees from anywhere and improve customer responsiveness. For workers, it’s given them greater flexibility to shape their own work schedules and work from home.

But with the benefits of greater worker mobility come new challenges in helping protect the privacy of sensitive company information.

Helping Protect Visual Privacy

Workers who access their company’s networks or view sensitive work information in public places too often do so in the full view of others. They don’t use visual controls, such as privacy filters, and they aren’t aware of their surroundings, including potential “shoulder surfers.”

As a result, someone could view or even photograph the information on their screen and they likely wouldn’t even notice. Such threats are known as visual hacking, which is the act of viewing or capturing sensitive, confidential or private information for unauthorized use.

The growing sophistication of smartphone cameras and inconspicuous wearable technology is only making visual hacking easier to pull off and harder for victims to detect. And the ease with which workers in sensitive company positions can now be identified online – such as through social media posts, professional biographies and upcoming conference participation – can make them easy targets for visual hackers.

Three Easy Actions

Helping prevent visual hacking begins with knowing how to safeguard sensitive information. Three easy actions that any employer can start doing today to reduce the risk of visual hacking to its mobile workers include:

  1. Using privacy products. Privacy screens blacken out the angled side view of potential onlookers while providing a clear, unobstructed screen viewfor users. Available for laptops, tablets and smartphones,the privacy screens should be used not only on work devices but also on personal devices that are used for work purposes, even if it’s only on a limited basis.
  2. Updating training.Visual hackers will seize on the careless behaviors and momentary lapses in judgment of mobile workers. Security awareness training can help educate workers about visual hacking and the important role they play in helping prevent it,as well as drive home the need to be continuously aware of potential onlookers in public places.
  3. Implementing policies.Policies should be in place to ensure mobile devices are password protected. They should also help define appropriate behaviors for mobile workers.This includes requiring them to shut down devices when not in use – even for something as quick as a phone call. It also includes directing workers to angle devices away from potential onlookers, such as seatmates on a train, customers at a coffee shop, or crowds in a hotel lobby, airport or conference.

These steps can help any organization, but they’re only a beginning. As the mobile workforce continues to grow, a more comprehensive approach – beginning with a visual privacy audit – will be needed to help prevent visual-hacking risks from growing with it.



[1] IDC Forecasts U.S. Mobile Worker Population to Surpass 105 Million by 2020, IDC,  June 23, 2015

About John Brenberg 1 Article
John Brenberg, Manager, Information Security & Compliance, 3M, has over 30 years of experience spanning new product introduction, system development, infrastructure management and information security and compliance across multiple business segments and processes. He is responsible for leading the IT programs for information security, compliance and risk, all for the protection of company and customer information and critical business processes. Brenberg credits his success to his many strong internal partnerships across intellectual property, privacy, compliance and systems management.

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