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Safety Net: beware the hacker behind you


Forget cyber villains. The real hacker is right behind you.

Forget cyber villains. The real hacker is right behind you.

“Visual hacking” is the high-tech name for the low-tech trick of peeking over someone’s shoulder to steal a glimpse at their password and other sensitive information. All your efforts to keep out hackers can be for naught if someone simply watches you type in your banking login and password.

It’s not just banking details at risk – these days we tend to store a lot of sensitive personal information on our computers, smartphones and tablets. It’s a sensible idea to password-protect them all, especially if you carry them around and there’s a chance they could be lost or stolen. Even turning your back for a minute could be long enough for someone nearby to grab your unlocked device and snoop around – whether you’re at home, work or school.

While you’re at it, you should probably lock-down that tablet or notebook which lives on your coffee table, along with the desktop computer in the study. If the idea of someone rummaging around in your digital private life is worrying then you should take the time to password-protect all your devices.

The next security challenge is keeping those passwords safe – which is where visual hacking comes into play. When you’re wrapped up in whatever you’re doing on your computer, smartphone or tablet it’s easy not to notice that someone nearby is paying a little too much attention to what you’re doing. Whether you’re riding the train or sitting at your desk, stop to consider who might be nearby.

The really disturbing thing about visual hacking is that the perpetrator is likely to be someone who knows who you are, even if you don’t recognise them.

You wouldn’t post your passwords, banking details and other sensitive information on Facebook for all your friends and acquaintances to see. That’s not paranoia, just common sense. In the same vein, perhaps you should be a little more cautious when it comes to typing in your passwords around people you know.

It pays to keep your wits about you, even when you’re sitting on the couch at home. You might not come from a family of hardened criminals, but if you wouldn’t tell everyone in the house your password then you shouldn’t let them watch as you type it in. Expecting family and close friends to avert their gaze as you enter your passwords isn’t rude, it’s just a common courtesy in the Internet age.

This might all sound like paranoia, but when you think about it visual hacking is a smart low-tech way to snoop on someone compared to actually breaking into their devices and accounts. Cyber-stalking and identity theft scams often rely on simple tricks like looking over your shoulder, stealing your mail or tricking you into handing over a seemingly innocuous piece of information which makes it that bit easier to pretend to be you.

So what can you do to stay safe? The best way to defend against visual hacking is to get into good habits. Most of us tend to glance around before punching our pass-code into a teller machine or EFTPOS terminal. It wouldn’t hurt to take the same basic precaution before typing in your passwords.

Also think about alternative ways of unlocking your devices, such as the fingerprint reader and facial recognition built into many high-end smartphones, tablets and notebooks. Signing in with your fingerprint or a smile thwarts anyone who is hoping to catch a glimpse of your password.

You need to be extra security-conscious if you’re dealing with sensitive business information, as hackers might be using you as a stepping stone to target your employer or your customers. Consider installing a privacy screen protector on your notebook and handheld devices, which allows you to read the screen from directly in front but narrows the viewing angles so people peering from the sides only see a black screen.

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