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Users who are otherwise careful to protect their information often fail to protect confidential information they display on computer screens from shoulder surfers.

According to a recent survey, more than half of employees fail to protect their data despite admitting that they are able to read the confidential information of others. The poll was conducted by ComRes, for Secure, the European Association for Visual Data Security.

ComRes discovered that 71 per cent of employees have been able to see or read what someone is working on over their shoulder. Despite being aware of the potential problems that could arise from shoulder surfing, more than half (53 per cent) of the 2,000 workers quizzed said they do not take precautions to protect sensitive or private info from potential snoops – even when they work in high risk environments such as trains, planes or coffee shops.

The survey supports research carried out in compiling Secure's recently released white paper on Visual Data Security - which revealed that while 90 per cent of 150 IT security professionals polled were aware of the threat posed by a visual data security breach, the vast majority (82 per cent) had little or no confidence that their workers were doing anything to prevent their data from being viewed whilst working in a public environment.

Organisations spend millions guarding against malware and hackers while ignoring the potential Achilles' heel of visual data security.

The growing issue has been compounded both by a more mobile workforce and the increased availability of smartphones with high-resolution cameras, which enable unauthorised individuals to easily capture sensitive information.

Secure’s White Paper provides examples of visual data security breaches and the practical steps that organisations can take to protect their consumer’s data and their own.

For example, a senior UK civil servant at the department of Business, Innovation and Skills fell asleep on a commuter train, leaving highly sensitive information displayed on his screen. A fellow passenger took two photographs of the information while it was displayed on the screen, which made their way into a Daily Mail story about the breach.

In the US, the private details of clients of a Bank of America branch office in downtown St Petersburg, Florida were visible through the bank’s windows to people on the street outside the bank’s offices.

According to the white paper, management consultancy Ernst & Young reported a case they investigated where a "call centre staff member provided screenshots of internal systems to fraudsters to help them reverse engineer an application”. Many incidents of visual data security breaches go unreported but those that have hot the news make a big splash, especially when government agencies or ministers are involved.

In August 2011, the UK’s International Development Secretary was photographed leaving Number 10 Downing Street with sensitive government papers relating to Afghanistan on display. These papers were caught on camera by news photographers and film crews.

A similar blunder by the then assistant commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Force’s counter terrorism unit, Bob Quick, led to a camera being able to capture secret documents outlining a planned police raid on a terrorist cell – as Quick entered Number 10. The mistake cost the senior cop his job.

Response to Parliamentary questions in the wake of these snafus reveals that the UK government has rolled out policies to guard against further visual data security breaches. For example, new recruits to the Treasury are briefed on the importance of visual data security as part of their induction training.

The Data Protection Act obliges companies to take all possible steps to protect personal data - including measures to guard against a visual data security breach. And it's not all doom and gloom.

There are organisations in the private sector who are already applying best practice in visual data security. Barclays Bank, for example, makes use of computer privacy panels that mean that only someone directly in front of a computer are able to see its screen.

Brian Honan, an experienced infosec consultant and author of the Secure white paper, experienced that "with the frequency and innovative nature of data attacks rising, organisations must ensure that the defences they have in place protect against all potential data breaches and not just some."

Visual data security involves ensuring that information cannot be viewed by unauthorised individuals. This is particularly important when private or sensitive information is involved. A comprehensive explanation of the issue, and tips about best practices, can be found in the Secure white paper here (PDF). ®

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