Visual hacking and how to avoid it

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 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.

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. (Source:

It’s not just work

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 the sensitive information on your laptop or monitor screen.

1. Where possible, avoid working in public places

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. Invest in 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 black out 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.

Privacy You Can Trust
More healthcare professionals rely on laptops and tablets to interact remotely with hospitals. Without laptop privacy filters, their data access in public becomes an opportunity for an invasion of patient privacy.
Corporate spies may not need to infiltrate a company to gain secrets when confidential data can be viewed and photographed over a traveling executive’s shoulder. Privacy filters can help protect against corporate spying in public places.
Outside the security of government offices, government workers using mobile devices risk exposing sensitive data. Privacy filters are an inexpensive and effective extension of mandatory state and federal security measures to protect confidential information.
As the number of workers outside the office continues to grow, so do privacy risks. In fact, 55% of working professionals work on their laptop in a high-traffic public area at least one hour per week.* From libraries to coffee shops to airport terminals, mobile workers need the security of privacy filters wherever they work to protect the data they handle.
Whether it’s your broker, your accountant or a financial advisor, many financial professionals are traveling or commuting, many working as independent contractors outside of an office setting. Sensitive financial records on-screen without a privacy filter in place are subject to prying eyes. s to interact remotely with hospitals. Without laptop privacy filters, their data access in public becomes an opportunity for an invasion of patient privacy.
The increased use of laptops and mobile devices by teachers and administrators means sensitive data can be accessed beyond the secure environment of school grounds. Privacy filters can prevent the possibility of exposed student information in public.
*People Security Visual Data Breach Risk Assessment Study

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