LAS VEGAS—Integrated webcam covers have become ubiquitous on laptops as a way to guard against a snoop hacking the camera and spying on you. But privacy filters integrated into a laptop’s display to guard against someone snooping over your shoulder aren’t nearly as prevalent.
Why? They can significantly degrade picture quality, washing out colors and dulling text. So hey’re mostly available on business laptops like HP EliteBooks and Lenovo ThinkPads, whose users deal with extremely sensitive information. But a startup called RealD ME wants to change that. The company, which has also created privacy filters for phone screens, built a new laptop privacy filter that harnesses the display’s natural glare to obfuscate it from extreme angles.
The technology will show up first on the HP Elite Dragonfly G2 laptop, unveiled at CES this week. Called SureView Gen 4, its brightness can automatically adjust based on the angle at which you’re viewing the screen. At a 45-degree angle, it blocks 99.7 percent of the screen’s viewable contents, but it hardly affects the screen quality at all when you view it head-on.
I tried SureView Gen 4 during a brief demo at CES, and I found it to be a vast improvement over the first-generation SureView privacy filter, which showed up on HP EliteBooks in 2017. That early version was revolutionary in that it enabled privacy at the tap of a button, rather than having to attach an external physical privacy filter. But as soon as you turned it on, even the head-on view was washed out.
SureView Gen 4 gets around this problem by blocking the intensity of the light at a 45-degree angle. The only drawback is a dimmer screen, with contrast and colors otherwise appearing identical to how they look with the filter turned off. Viewed from an angle, all I could see was my own reflection in the Elite Dragonfly’s glossy display.
To me, a dimmer screen isn’t a huge trade-off for increased privacy. I generally find that my laptop screen is too bright anyway and frequently adjust it downwards. That’s especially the case in environments where privacy is likely to be critical, such as a darkened airplane cabin.
Will It Catch On?
Several high-profile snooping incidents jolted the public’s attention on webcam privacy, leading to lots of masking tape being used as makeshift covers, and finally built-in privacy doors. It’s not just hackers who are the concern here—a school district in Pennsylvania paid more than $600,000 to settle two lawsuits in 2010 from students who said they were spied on using school-issued laptops.
Unfortunately, it will likely take high-profile incidents like these for consumers to pay attention to who is looking over their shoulder when they’re at the coffee shop, on a plane, or studying in the university library. If that happens, SureView Gen 4 suggests that we’ll at least have a reasonable technological solution to the problem.