Strong passwords and solid encryption technologies go a long way toward keeping your private work data private. But those tools can’t stop someone from simply peering at your screen from over your shoulder, or worse – snapping a photo of what you’re working on. It’s called visual hacking and it’s a serious security threat that businesses shouldn’t ignore.

Thankfully, there’s an easy fix. Simple privacy filters that adhere to a laptop’s display can severely restrict the viewing angle, so that only someone sitting directly in front of the screen can see what’s on it. Anyone trying to sneak a peek from the sides or top will just see a blank, black screen.

Privacy filters are surprisingly low-tech, consisting of a polarized plastic sheet. Polarization works as an optical filter that blocks out light from certain angles – in this case, all angles but the one right in front of the screen. It’s the same technology used for polarized sunglasses and some types of camera lenses.

The need for a privacy filter will vary depending on the employee’s work habits. Of course, those most at risk of visual hacking use a computer in a public place, or in close proximity to clients or customers. Due to the nature of their work, frequent travelers, as well as employees in customer service or sales positions, could be particularly susceptible to visual hacking.

It takes just a few seconds for someone to glean confidential information from a computer screen, which could potentially be used for malicious or illegal intent. The risk is especially high given the ubiquity of smartphones with high-quality cameras, making it extremely easy to snap a quick photo without anyone noticing.

In fact, 3M used white hat hackers in a study to investigate the phenomenon. Hackers tried to glean confidential information using visual hacking from more than 100 companies in 16 industries. They were successful in nearly 90 percent of trials, and it usually took 15 minutes or less. Hackers were able to recover nearly five pieces of sensitive information in each trial, including financials and confidential employee and customer information – using nothing but their eyes.

Ultimately, assessing your company’s true risk of visual hacking is going to be difficult. For some businesses, simply educating your employees about the issue can be enough. After all, many employees are not actually aware of what types of information are sensitive and should be protected. For other companies, privacy filters for laptop screens – which are relatively cheap and easy to install – are a no-brainer.



You may not have to worry about buying or installing privacy filters, because some laptops come with the feature built into the display. HP's laptops with Sure View technology comes with a privacy filter that can be toggled on or off with the push of a button.

Sure View – which was developed with 3M's help – was first be available on the EliteBook 1040 and EliteBook 840 laptops in 2016. Pressing the F2 button on those systems transitions the screen into privacy mode using a special backlight and filter overlaid onto the display. In practice, it works just like the existing black privacy filters, with one key advantage: the filter can be toggled off when it’s not needed.

That’s a big perk for workers who don’t want to deal with the privacy filter’s dimming effect when working in the office. It also makes it easier to share information on your screen with someone sitting next to you, since the privacy filter can be toggled on or off instantly.

Sure View will bump up the cost of your laptop by about $75, which makes it costlier than the average screen filter. But keep in mind that it’s a one-time cost, and will never have to be replaced due to typical wear and tear.

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So far, HP is the only company to debut laptops with built-in privacy filters. We’ll have to wait to see if other laptop makers adopt similar technology.

A former Ohio newspaper man, Brett Nuckles fled the Midwest in 2013. He now lives in Seattle, where he spends his days tinkering with smartphones, tablets and computers. He loves to think about the intersection of technology and productivity, and how to get the most out of new gadgets and apps. He's also a big fan of vegetarian food and digital painting. In his off hours he spends most of his time drawing and painting sci-fi/fantasy scenes on his PC with his trusty Wacom stylus in hand.

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