HP Study Exposes a Different Kind of Hacker: The Creeping Peeker

Every October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM) according to the US Department of Homeland Security, so it's a great time to keep personal and business security and privacy top of mind. Most of us already use passwords or biometrics to secure our devices and the data they contain, we use two-factor authentication (2FA) to keep our information on services and devices safe, and we're always trying to come up with better security practices to keep prying eyes away. Yet, it seems that we're also vulnerable to unwanted snooping in the workplace.

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The HP Creepers & Peekers Study, a survey conducted on behalf of HP by global market research firm Edelman Intelligence, took place across Canada, the UK, and the United States in August 2019. The interviewees were 3,000 general consumers and 1,500 office workers, who were asked questions to gauge whether or not snooping in the workplace is a rampant occurrence.

"The catalyst for this particular study was related to the shift to open-plan offices," an HP spokesperson told PCMag. "While this shift has been mainly related to promoting collaboration and bringing people closer, it has also led to a lack of privacy. As we spend more time in email, chat, and virtual meetings [like video conferences], there's a need for confidentiality to protect sensitive data. Think of the financial, legal, customer, and personal data that cross screens every day—whether that's on the go, at desks, or around the office."

HP's study has some startling revelations about how co-workers creep on one another's device screens in the workplace and even peek at office print trays. While this doesn't necessarily mean curious co-workers are outright stealing, but it does beg the question: Does it signify a new type of hacker threat?

The results of this study become even more alarming for millions of workers who use co-working spaces, which are large and unmoderated open-concept spaces shared with strangers who aren't your co-workers.

HP states on its website that its study "looks to better understand a more prevalent threat than third-party, online-targeted hacking: in-person 'hacking' driven by human curiosity. Understanding this 'creeping/peeking' behavior will help HP create and lead an authentic conversation around this topic. Ninety percent of all the data in the world today has been created in the last two years and all of this data crosses a screen."

(Image credit: HP)

Human Curiosity Is the Culprit

The HP Creepers & Peekers Study revealed that human curiosity is compromising privacy in the workplace. Here are some of the study's key findings:

  • 73 percent of office workers creep on co-workers' desktop computers or phone screens while at work
  • 44 percent of office workers are likely to creep while walking past their co-workers' desks
  • 34 percent of office workers are likely to creep during a work meeting
  • 21 percent looked at co-workers' computers or phones when they could potentially gain something from it

Office printers, which are usually found in high-traffic locations in today's office spaces, are also the target of snooping. Seventy-three percent of respondents admitted they "peek at unclaimed documents they find left in the office printer tray." More alarmingly, the study revealed that 40 percent of respondents who see a confidential document left in the printer look at it, make a copy, or take the document.

Conversely, it comes as no surprise that 45 percent of respondents said that they "rush to the printer after they print something to prevent co-workers from seeing it first."

Why does this happen? The HP Creepers & Peekers Study revealed that "screen creeping can help us learn about others and even help us feel more connected to those around us. While few do so with malicious intent, it can happen; one in five survey respondents said they "creep when they could gain something from it." Six in 10 respondents cited that they "can't help it," and five in 10 respondents said that looking at others' screens gives them a glimpse inside their co-workers' lives.

The survey also revealed that people are becoming more cautious. Eight in 10 respondents said they restrict what they have on their screens in public. But is this enough?

(Image credit: HP)

5 Tips to Protect Your Privacy at Work

While your co-workers probably aren't nefarious by nature and probably aren't out to snoop or creep on your screens and personal information, it does still make sense to exercise a degree of caution regardless of where you are. Here are five tips to consider to better protect your privacy in the workplace.

1. Be Aware: Having a security mindset means being present and conscious of where and how you use your technology. Being aware means taking the extra steps or precautions when viewing sensitive personal or business information, and making sure there's no one nearby who can sneak a peek.

2. Lock Your PC's Screen When You Leave Your Desk: Your work PC and the information it contains are your responsibility; it is good practice to lock your screen if you will be away from your desk. For laptop owners, closing the clamshell can trigger your device's sleep function, which will require a password, fingerprint, or facial scan to resume. On mobile devices such as phones and tablets, using auto-lock features that require a PIN, password, or biometric security check is usually sufficient.

3. Change to a Smaller Font When You Walk With Your Laptop: Even if you need to have important notes or documents open as you move around your office or co-working space, you can take steps to keep information safe. Making the font size of your document smaller makes it harder for snoopers to read.

4. Avoid Printing Sensitive Personal Documents at Work: While printing personal documents at the office is convenient, the best way to avoid any instance that they may be spied on or taken is to not print them at work at all.

5. Consider Using Privacy Screen Protectors on Your Devices: There are various third-party privacy screen protectors for PC monitors, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. These privacy screens limit the viewing angles on displays, making it hard for anyone not directly in front of the screen to read it.

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This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.