Forget the NSA, Privacy Starts With You
I am outraged by the allegations that the National Security Agency is collecting data for our every phone call, email and Internet exchange. I have heard it from you, too. But for all the attention and outrage, it is clear that the worst privacy violations, especially for businesses, start with you.
(Read More: Cheney: NSA Snooping Could Have Prevented Sept. 11 )
Last week alone I was in a coffee shop when I heard two individuals discussing the confidential business of a client— by name—and I also recently found a pitch book for a top-secret proposal for a company in the pharmaceutical industry in the seatback pocket on an airplane.
In fact, CNBC's digital series—"The Puppets Can Hear You"—is based off of conversations overheard in Goldman Sachs' elevator. Investment bankers, attorneys, advertising executives and other service providers and even employees of companies themselves are creating a major privacy issue for business.
A recent survey by my client, Regus, a flexible workplace provider, shows that when office workers can't be in their actual offices during the day, only 37 percent say they "need" privacy.
However, nearly 20 percent of those asked what is the "worst" part of working remotely say fear that "someone can hear my phone calls" and "someone can see my computer." These are real concerns. I have sat next to many a person on an airplane who was shoulder surfing my computer and I admit to doing the same.
So, how do you take charge of privacy? Here are a few tips to make sure you safeguard your employers' secrets—and your own—while out of the office and working remotely:
- Use a code name or a generic name for customers and clients in public. Bankers often have fun making up project names, so use them if you are making a phone call, in a public location or even in a taxi (don't underestimate the business savvy of your taxi driver). If you don't have a project name, use a phrase like "our client" or "our customer" instead of the company name to preserve privacy.
- Watch what you say in elevators or open spaces, whether at your own company, a client's, a service provider or a prospects' office. It's very easy to continue your private conversation but you can't control who will hear what you are saying and that can be a detriment to you, your company and your client. And you may even find the discussion re-enacted by puppets or on Twitter.
- Use a privacy screen on your laptop in public, especially on plane, train or bus rides so that you don't fall victim to nosy people like me looking over your shoulder. There are a number of models available at retailers like Amazon and Staples that are cheap and easy to find with a simple online search.
- Dispose of any confidential documents by shredding them. Don't leave them behind in hotel or coffee shop trash bins and certainly not in the seat pocket of a plane. When crafting draft documents, consider using code names or redacting identifying information as well.
- Don't have working sessions that involve confidential conversations in a restaurant, coffee shop or hotel lobby. Look for remote working options that allow you to speak behind closed doors, where you don't have to shout over the noise of music or espresso machines. The Regus survey referenced above notes 14 percent of New Yorkers have even "done work" in a bathroom—while that may give you some privacy, you still should not let your desire to chat outweigh common sense.
- Be cognizant of your mobile phone usage. The inside voice and information filter we used to have seems to have been lost with time. People say the most outrageous and highly private and confidential things to each other or over their mobile phones, often in very loud voices. Think about emailing, texting or even waiting over using your phone to discuss a project. Also, make sure to have strong password protections in place for your mobile phones, tablets, laptops and social accounts.
- Finally, if a topic or subject is strictly confidential and you are in public, don't talk about work at all—how about those Mets?
Do you have other tips for protecting your privacy? Share them below.
—Carol Roth is a CNBC contributor, the host of WGN radio's "The Noon Show" and author of "The Entrepreneur Equation." Follow her on Twitter: @CarolJSRoth.