Over the last several years there has been a renewed push towards privacy features from the laptop industry. With the majority of PC sales being laptops, and battery life improving dramatically, use of laptops in public spaces for business use has increased accordingly. Quite a few business laptops now offer things like privacy shutters for the webcam, as an example, but much more can be done to protect business information from prying eyes in public.

Sure View Privacy Screen from HP

One of the recent solutions has been integrated privacy screens, which dramatically reduce the viewing angle of displays so that if someone attempts to glance over at your screen while you are working, they will see almost nothing. While a good solution, these privacy screens can impact the device usage as well to the detriment of the user experience, which is why, for example, HP’s Sure View integrated privacy screen can be toggled on and off.

A new solution has popped up this year at CES from several manufacturers, and that is to actively reject shoulder surfing by use IR cameras to detect unwanted eyes and then blur the display if they are detected. I remember first seeing Tobii Eye Tracking hardware and software at MSI’s booth at CES in, I believe, 2015. Tobii uses IR cameras to track eye movements, and at the time, was touted as a gaming feature. Tobii as a brand is still best known in the consumer space for their gaming efforts, but they are now partnering with MSI on their business lineup to provide Tobii Aware, which leverages the concepts of their gaming products for business privacy functionality.

With Tobii Aware, the laptop will be able to continuously provide authentication for the correct user, so if that user turns their head, the display will blur, then when they turn back, it will come back into focus. Presence detection is another feature that has become a focus, including in Windows itself, and the device can automatically lock itself if you step away. Tobii will also allow you to have either visual clues, or privacy screen activation or blurring if someone is trying to shoulder surf your work.

Lenovo ThinkPad Webcam

Tobii is not the only player in this space. Lenovo has partnered with Lattice Semiconductor to integrate FPGAs for Computer Vision into the new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 for presence detection, which will not only increase privacy and allow for more accurate screen unlocks – even with a mask on – but also is touted as a battery saving feature since the PC will only wake up when the right person walks up to it, and not just a pet walking by or someone else in the area. The ThinkPad X1 will also automatically dim the display when it is not being looked at, and as the display is the largest power draw in the entire system, it can further improve battery life. This is even more important for OLED displays which are becoming more common in the laptop space.

AMD is also in this game, partnering with a company called Eyeware to bring a downloadable application for Radeon users in the first half of 2022. The AMD/Eyeware solution is a little different, in that rather than using cameras to actively spot shoulder surfers, it's based around watching what the user is doing. Eyeware wants to use real-time eye tracking to determine what the user is looking at, and then blur/dim everything else, essentially fuctioning as a form of passive rejection of shoulder surfing.

While laptop privacy has certainly been an active development feature for several manufacturers over the last few years, there is little doubt that the current working environment, with the dramatic shift to remote work over the last two years, has pushed the idea of protecting business information further along than perhaps would have happened organically. With the data now being accessed out of the office with a much higher frequency, containing that data from curious eyes is most certainly something that all businesses would want. The new upcoming hardware and software combinations from several players should help to alleviate some of the concern, although of course the protection of business data is still, even with these protections, something that workers will need to be trained on.

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  • Sivar - Monday, January 10, 2022 - link

    It is ironic that Lenovo is prominently featured in a laptop privacy article when they were the first caught installing Superfish malware on laptops which allowed them to impersonate Citibank, Google, Facebook, and to spy on their own customers private communications.
    Their CEO later stated that he didn't see how this was a big deal.

    Not long after, Dell did even worse, installing a root certificate on laptops that all had the same certificate authority, so anyone could create a website or application that the laptop's browser would report as "Safe".

    Hopefully both companies fired the dangerously inept employees who made those decisions and have hired at least one tech person that knows the introductory basics of security.
  • Oxford Guy - Monday, January 10, 2022 - link

  • Silver5urfer - Monday, January 10, 2022 - link

    If it's Windows 11 Secure Boot there's no privacy, Windows 10 itself harvests a lot of data one needs to remove the garbage from the iso itself using DISM or use an Enterprise IoT with garbage removed. Plus if it has UWP apps and Store, there's no privacy, Windows 11 home mandates to have Account. On top if these are using Ryzen 6000 Rembrandt then it's game over. Pluton processor is cloud connected technology blackbox. It uses Windows Update catalog to update itself as well.

    At this point people are buying glass for their homes. This whole thing is a facade and just PR BS.
  • Zoolook13 - Saturday, January 22, 2022 - link

    It's not difficult to install Windows 11 without a microsoft acciount, it's just not obvious.
  • PeachNCream - Monday, January 10, 2022 - link

    Eh, the OS is spyware and has been for a long time. Not having a physically present microphone, camera, or biometric analysis component like a fingerprint reader on a laptop might be helpful, but until Microsoft, Facebook (or whatever they call themselves), Google, Valve, Twitter, etc no longer have an incentive to collect and mine data in order to generate income (never gonna happen) then you can enjoy your non-private computing experiences and like it.
  • Oxford Guy - Monday, January 10, 2022 - link

    Skimming a profit off of the fact that these machines and the network they connect to, are the antithesis of privacy — by design.

    The selling of sunglasses to poultry so the foxes in their houses won’t bother them so much, until they do.

    When CPUs no longer have black box CPUs in them, support chips don’t contain spyware, operating systems don’t contain closed (secret) code, networks and the software atop them don’t contain closed code and are required to be designed to have military-grade security, and yada yada yada get back to me.
  • ballsystemlord - Monday, January 10, 2022 - link

    So we're allowing MS to stick Pluton into the HW, but touting better security because we blur the display? What sort of madness is this?
  • TomWomack - Monday, January 10, 2022 - link

    It's a much more reasonable threat model. Providing laptops which a law firm's IT department will be happy to allow partners to use for billable hours of client work on a train or a plane is going to let you make a few sales you wouldn't make otherwise; being overlooked on the train is much more likely than being the target of an APT. Of course, making phone calls on the train is an even more obvious source of client data leakage.
  • Sunrise089 - Monday, January 10, 2022 - link

    Are you claiming partners can’t bill for work while traveling? Because if so I’m curious what direct experience you have in this area…
  • Sunrise089 - Monday, January 10, 2022 - link

    Interesting article Brett, but would be interested in hearing AT’s balanced take on Pluton and the privacy concerns it raises. The bolder claims being made about it in comments here and elsewhere suggest things like webcam shutters would be a metaphorical bandaid on a gunshot wound.

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