Friday, 06 November 2015 01:19

Review: 3M’s must-have privacy accessories for the digital generation

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3M has long offered privacy filters to stop prying eyes from seeing the contents of your laptop’s screen, but now they exist for smartphones and tablets, too.

While we all know of key loggers, info-stealing malware, RATs (remote access tools) that are used to watch and listen to people through their webcams and microphones, the growing trend of shoulder surfing where people are simply looking over your shoulder to see exactly what you’re looking at is a real threat.

3M calls this ‘visual hacking’ and says that Australian businesses - and really, businesses worldwide - are ‘blind’ to this threat.

Currently, most businesses invest in preventing data breaches from high-tech cyber attacks, but visual hacking is an extremely inexpensive low-tech method used to capture sensitive, confidential and private information for unauthorised use, and it’s clearly an under-addressed business risk.

3M quotes a recent (but unnamed) global study which 'found that in nearly nine out of ten attempts (88%), a white hat hacker was able to visually hack sensitive company information. Furthermore it exposed Australian business as lagging behind other countries when it comes to visual privacy issues.'

A lot of this comes down to the fact that teleworking has transformed from a 1970s ‘oil-shock’ dream into an everyday, wireless broadband connected reality.

After all, with the continued rise of our mobile Australian workforce, employees can now work from virtually anywhere. However, with this freedom comes the aforementioned visual hacking phenomenon, which are the seemingly harmless glances from the people around you that can glean sensitive or proprietary information from your laptop, tablet or smartphone.

Annelies Moens, a privacy expert at Information Integrity Solutions Pty Ltd said: “Every time I'm on an airplane, waiting in an airport, on the train, waiting at the bus stop or even in my local café, I see business travellers and mobile employees plugging away on their laptops or smartphones with their screens in clear view of fellow travellers and diners.

“Whether out of sheer boredom or actually being interested in what they see, people do fixate on laptop and mobile screens and you never know what they will do with the information they discover. That's why it's always important to protect the data on your screen.”

This phenomenon is ably demonstrated by the famous video James Grande posted to YouTube earlier this year during his plane flight, where his neighbouring passenger simply couldn’t stop watching what Grande was doing, despite Grande making it clear he did not want his seat mate spying on his work. 

Grande caught him on camera and exposed the very real threat of visual hacking to the world - although had Grande had simply purchased and used one of 3M’s Privacy Filters, Grande could have continued working in peace while his neighbour simply wondered why Grande was staring at a seemingly blank screen.

Here’s Grande’s eye-opening video to refresh your memory:

3M also points to studies which have shown that employees often expose sensitive data outside the workplace – some even exposing highly regulated and confidential information such as customer credit card and personal finance details.

Damien Jones, 3M’s General Manager ANZ, Electronics & Energy Business said: “Visual privacy is a security issue that is often invisible to senior management, which is why it often goes unaddressed.

“From visible screens to people leaving their laptops unattended, there are clear opportunities for people with malicious intent to steal sensitive data using only visual means. A hacker often only needs one piece of valuable information to unlock a large-scale data breach.”

3M also reminds us that the need for ‘mobile data protection and “on-the-go” visual privacy has multiplied’ and that ‘Australian businesses are falling behind by not addressing this security issue and putting visual privacy policies in place.’

Indeed, with 3M having offered its Privacy Filters for desktops and notebooks for years, global businesses recognised the threat of visual hacking and the potential cost to business more than a decade ago - but the threat has only increased since then with the vast proliferation not only of laptops and ultraportable ultrabooks, but now smartphones and tablets. 

In the US, several studies and experiments including the recent 3M Visual Hacking Experiment, conducted by the Ponemon Institute on behalf of the Visual Privacy Advisory Council and 3M itself, which makes these privacy filters, set-out to highlight the importance of implementing a corporate visual privacy policy by showing how easy it was for a hacker to obtain sensitive data using only visual means, as well as employee carelessness with company information and lack of awareness to data security threats.

But in Australia, the majority of local companies ‘do not have policies or measures in place to protect sensitive information from visual hacking when employees are working in public places,’ with the aforementioned Annalies Moens stating: “With the rise in mobile workers carrying confidential data with them outside the office, the seemingly harmless glances from the people may represent a weak link in corporate data security practices.”

Naturally, 3M’s Specialty Display Business division offers a range of privacy filters to combat this very real problem, with screens for mobiles (including the latest iPhone 6, 6s, 6 Plus and 6s Plus models) starting from $29.95 and going up incrementally at affordable pricing levels on privacy filters for tablets and popular laptops (including Apple’s MacBooks, Microsoft’s Surface Pro models and many other common screen sizes) at prices from about $64 upwards depending on screen size, right through to massive 30-inch desktop computer displays at prices up to $295.

So, what do I think of these privacy filters?

I personally use one with my 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina ($53 at OfficeMax) and, quite frankly would never be without it. There is something truly satisfying in noticing someone looking over your shoulder only to see the blackness of the privacy screen in action, while your front-on vision is unimpeded and you can continue your work safe in the knowledge that shoulder surfer spies have been thwarted. 

Sure, the resulting image is a little darker than it would be without the privacy filter, but your eyes quickly accustom to it while screen brightness can always be raised if desired. The screen comes with two strips of adhesive that go on the left and right hand sides of the filter, which sticks to the bezel part of your display.

The screen is easily removable on the MacBook Pro, and if the adhesive parts get dirty with dust, they can simply be washed under running water from the tap, with the filter left on a table or bench top to dry, after which the filter can be easily re-applied to your screen.

Eventually the stickiness will diminish, but 3M includes two more strips of adhesive in its packaging, so you can remove the older strips and attach new ones.

On smartphones the screens allow you to view your devices in vertical or horizontal orientation when looking directly at the screen, but for obvious visual privacy reasons, viewing angles are diminished so that people can’t look sideways at your phone to see what it is you’re doing.

For tablets, there are screens for both portrait and horizontal modes, with easy removability so you can stay private when needed, and easily share content when desired.

If you are in the habit of looking at your own phone’s screen while on a table or elsewhere at an angle, your own ability to see your screen is impaired, but given this screen stops shoulder snoopers in their tracks, it’s an acceptable and worthwhile tradeoff to make.

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Obviously it does depend on the value of the data it is you’re wanting to protect, but with all of our lives now so digital, and with today’s children born as digital natives, virtually every aspect of our digital lives is on our smartphones, let alone our tablets.

Thus, losing some of the side-on viewing angle for vastly improved visual privacy is a trade-off worth making, especially if you deal in commercially or otherwise sensitive information you don’t need someone seeing purposefully or accidentally simply because they are next to you and have nothing better to do but to stare at your screen.

3M’s list of Australian distributors for its privacy filters is here, with stores including OfficeworksStaples, Office Choice, OfficeMax (which lists a range of 3M’s Privacy Filters for different MacBooks at different screen sizes at very competitive prices)  and others.

3M has also issued some ‘top tips to help prevent Visual Hacking’, which appear to be for those who aren’t using 3M Privacy Filters:

  • If you are working in a public area, choose your location carefully and make sure you are sitting where others can’t see your screen – spots in the corner with your back to the wall usually work best. Reduce screen brightness when viewing devices in public, turning down the brightness of your screen as far as possible may help stop attacks. Implement a clear desk policy; ask employees to turn off device screens and remove all papers from their workspace.
  • Naturally, however, 3M also suggests you ‘use a privacy filter from 3M that darkens side views so prying eyes can’t see what’s on your screen.’ So, there you have it.

I was using 3M’s Privacy Filters with my Windows based tablet PCs a decade ago for many years, and now I use them on a MacBook Pro and on an iPhone, and will soon be attaching one to a Surface Pro 3.

Privacy filters absolutely work to dramatically frustrate would-be shoulder surfers while thwarting corporate spies. 3M’s Privacy Filters are the real deal, so if you want to give those shoulder surfers the visual could shoulder, 3M can definitely help you do exactly that!


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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