04/02/2014 08:25 GMT | Updated 05/04/2014 06:59 BST

Rise of the Commuter Snoopers

Imagine the situation: you're on the train to a meeting, going over some papers and you need to leave the carriage to go grab a coffee from the buffet car. What do you do with your briefcase? You'll only be gone two minutes and your laptop is safely stowed in the office, so what's the harm in leaving it on your seat?

When thinking about data protection, the minds of most usually leap to cybercriminals and lost laptops. Businesses will regularly build a fortress around their digital data in order to protect it from an outsider cyber threat but don't then realise that paper documents are walking out the door in the hands of their employees. The widening of commuter belts, the shifting definition of the workplace and increasing workloads mean that many of us need to use travel time to review business-related papers during our travel to and from work. These trends increase the threat to information stored on paper. While we wouldn't dream of leaving our laptop on show, many people wouldn't think twice about leaving papers unattended when they leave the carriage to pop to the toilet or grab a sandwich or even dispose of their papers on the train.

While it is not usual for people to take information home and use their travel time to get work done, the level of risk to information on the move may be surprising to many. A recent Iron Mountain study found that 72 per cent of office workers in the UK regularly, or always, look at the work being done by a person next or near to them while travelling on the train. 'Shoulder surfing poses a risk for information security and, if critical information is viewed by the wrong person, it could have a devastating effect on the business' competitive advantage and or reputation.

While it's unrealistic to expect people not to use their commute to get work done, you and your employer can take simple steps to significantly reduce the risk:

  • Think about what work you are doing while travelling and why. It could reflect diligence or commitment, but equally that you are struggling to get your work done during standard office hours.
  • Is the company the cause of you working on the commute, for example: requiring you to dial in to a conference call or communicate by email with international colleagues early or late in the day or while out of the office? If this is the case, it is down to the company to help you address this and keep conversations and correspondence safe.
  • The company should provide clear and practical policies for working while travelling - and communicate these regularly to all employees. You need to fully understand your responsibilities to hold company information safe while commuting.
  • Don't forget about the paper. While companies can secure their IT systems to make it impossible to access outside the office, paper can easily walk out the door. Be sure to include rules for managing paper documents in any information security policy.
  • Last but not least, use your common sense. A crowded train or airplane or a noisy departure lounge is rarely the best place for high-quality work, and if you can see what your neighbour is doing, the chances are they can view your work too. This is not the time to finalise those financial forecasts or the sales recovery slides.

Think "leave it and lose it". What would be the cost to you and your business if your briefcase got into the wrong hands?