Managing the risk of ‘visual hacking’ in the financial sector

  • Peter Barker, EMEA Market Manager, IT Market at 3M

  • 02.12.2019 01:00 pm
  • risk management

The financial sector is one that is particularly aware of the need to protect sensitive information and increasingly, this also includes reducing the risk of what has become known as ‘visual hacking’, also sometimes referred to as ‘shoulder-surfing’.  Put simply, this is the ability to view, even photograph, information that is on a person’s screen.

Many of us will have seen something on someone else’s monitor, laptop, tablet or smartphone that is clearly not meant to be shared.  Some of us will have also caught someone peering at our screens, and it matters for a couple of very important reasons.

First, that information could be used for malicious purposes, such as fraud, stolen credentials, or even selling it to a third party.  Visual hacking - which is implicit within the GDPR - could be the cause of security risks as much as software or network security breaches.  The predecessor to Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the Financial Services Authority (FSA), specifically covered visual security (including phone cameras and mobile workers) and its guidelines are still relevant to this market.  The UK Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 states that a company must show it ‘took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence’ and that includes physical security measures.

Second, visual hacks are easy and fast to achieve, requiring no specialist skills.  This is backed by several studies, including the Global Visual Hacking Experiment, carried out by global security specialist the Ponemon Institute and sponsored by 3M in 2016.  Covering eight countries and involving a ‘white hat hacker’ posing as a temporary office worker, visual hacks were successful in more than 90 per cent of attempts, with 49 per cent taking 15 minute or less.  The hacker was only challenged in approximately a third of attempts.  Nor is the risk confined to offices: with more people working in public spaces on mobile devices, the potential risk landscape increases further. 

Stop visual hacks in their tracks

Fortunately, improving visual privacy is achievable through a number of methods.  Here are some of the steps that banks, fintech vendors and other firms involved in the financial sector are already implementing.

1.     Awareness and management support - ensure that employees are not only aware of the visual hacking risk, but also their own responsibility to keep information secure from prying eyes.  Plus, as is often the case in so many initiatives, visual privacy measures are more likely to be followed if they are backed at executive level.

2.     Clear it away - paper can be a visual security risk too, so make sure that confidential papers are not left where they can be observed or photographed.  Likewise, make sure that mailroom, copier, printer trays and fax machines do not contain documents yet to be collected.  ‘Pull printing’ is a technique built into some modern machines that ensures documents can only be collected by an authorised person.  Shredding and reduction of paper usage should be routine by now.

3.     Speak up - employees should feel empowered to politely confront or report anyone they do not recognise, is not displaying clear ID, or is in an unauthorised location.

4.     Make it hard - angle screens away from easy viewing.  In public, sit with backs to a wall.  Screensavers and automatic log-ins are nothing new, but are highly effective at reducing the amount of time displays can be seen.

5.    Use privacy filters – these can be easily slipped on and off screens of all kinds and prevent on-screen data from being viewable except straight on and at close range.  So, someone taking a sideways glance or several feet behind the screen will see just a blank image.  They can be applied to monitors, laptops, tablets and even smartphones.

Security management is a multi-faceted challenge, but reducing the risk of visual hacking is one measure that is relatively simple, fast and cost-effective.  For any organisation, whether in the financial sector or not, building better visual privacy into security policies is a smart decision.

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