Keeping an eye on the prize: PrivateEye from Oculis Labs

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Keeping an eye on the prize: PrivateEye from Oculis Labs
Keeping an eye on the prize: PrivateEye from Oculis Labs

There was a day when a private investigator, or “private eye,” just was a detective. Not anymore. Today the term also applies to a neat program that protects a user's screen from prying eyes, allowing for an occasional forgetful moment, such as when one fails to invoke the screensaver when headed for the coffee machine. Or it shows you the picture of someone behind you if they are shoulder-surfing at, say, an airport lounge. The thing about this PrivateEye, though, is that it is so simple in operation. That, of course, is one of its beauties.

Although the tool seems simple on the outside, it is, of course, pretty tricky under the covers. It comes from some research this young – founded in 2007 – company has done for the government market. Oculis Labs is a small, privately funded start-up that has carved a unique niche for itself. PrivateEye is its first offering and has just hit the market. The product comes as a standalone or enterprise version, but I'm getting the cart before the horse. Here is how it works.

One installs PrivateEye – and the installation could not be simpler – on a computer. The computer needs to have a camera. Then PrivateEye and the camera take a picture of the user and anyone else authorized to work on the computer. That is it. There are a few tweaks one can make, but without lifting another finger, PrivateEye will start protecting the user's (or users') screen from illicit viewers.

As long as the user is sitting in front of their computer and the camera can see their face – or the face of anyone it has been trained to recognize – all is well. But if the user gets up for that coffee break and forgets to set their screensaver, PrivateEye kicks in. What happens next is that the screen blurs into unrecognizable content until the screensaver takes over.

“But I have a screensaver,” you say. “Why do I need this?” The simple answer is that PrivateEye protects, as Oculis puts it, “the last two feet” of a computer interaction. Screensavers usually are set to time out and lock after 15 minutes, or often longer. PrivateEye can be set for as little as two seconds. Since it is always watching the user, it really does not matter that the screen goes blurry after two seconds of the user's absence, especially since as soon as they return, the screen immediately goes back to normal. In other words, it only goes into action if a user is missing.

The other reason, of course, is that we sometimes forget to invoke our screensavers at all. If that happens, PrivateEye makes it no big deal.

Not only does PrivateEye take care of blocking the screen when a user is not in front of the camera, if someone stands behind the user to shoulder-surf, the user will see – and so will that person – a picture of the intruder pop up on the screen.

PrivateEye writes violations to the computer's system log and that can even include, for future identification, the pictures of any interlopers it sees.

And, there is an enterprise version. This behaves the same way except that it is centrally managed. That means that the administrator can push policy to it that will override the user's settings and can snatch up those system logs as well.

PrivateEye is available as an evaluation version on the Oculis website, and we installed it, used it and uninstalled it with absolutely no pain whatsoever. Our impression of PrivateEye is that it is a cool application that also has significant usefulness. All of us – and, certainly, the folks we support and keep secure – get moving through our days and forget to invoke the screensaver. So at that level, this has solid application.

For those of us who travel, it provides a double benefit. Not only does the screen blur if we set the computer down on the airplane seat while we get up for a stretch, it lets us know when someone is a little too curious about what we're doing. For all of that, it is easy to use and manage. Well worth taking a look at the eval version.


Product: PrivateEye
Company: Oculis Labs
Price: Starts at $3,600 for 50 seats, including first year's support
What it does: Blurs the computer screen to unreadability when the authorized user is not in front of it, and notifies the user when someone is shoulder-surfing.
What we liked: This is about the coolest and, at the same time, most useful security product we have seen in a long time. It is simple to use, very effective, and actually serves a real and important purpose.
What we didn't like: None that we found.

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