What does a Clear Desk Policy involve, and what threats does it help counter?

A clean desk wouldn’t seem to have much to do with cybersecurity. Yet in between the coffee cups and crisp packets, desks can be a treasure trove of personal information. Everything from print-outs to personal effects can provide clues for would-be cybercriminals, and see the physical world overlapping with the digital one.

Keeping important information in physical rather than digital form can make it more secure in some cases, but only if you approach it in a secure manner. Here’s how a Clear Desk Policy relates to your IT systems, the benefits it can have for cybersecurity, and a few suggestions as to whether it’s the right fit for you.


What is a Clear Desk Policy?

A Clear Desk Policy instructs employees to clear their desk or workstations of all personal belongings when they leave. This includes anything that wasn’t on the desk when they started using it, and applies whenever they leave the desk for an extended period of time. Ideally, no personal effects or sensitive documents should be left unattended at any time, though this is not always realistic.

Clear Desk Policies are an old idea that is coming back into favour thanks to new methods of working. With many employees now working flexibly, some companies are opting to downsize, and use a lower number of hotdesks, which different people use on different days. This sharing of workstations requires that employees are more conscious of maintaining a clean workspace, and of the security of their belongings and data.


Clear Desk Policy and cybersecurity

Whether intentional or not, we all keep things at work that could reveal personal information. From overly generous password hints on our computers to leaving documents or even our phones on our desks, it’s easy to get complacent about the items we leave lying around. This is even more true with the hybrid working models now adopted by many businesses, and the blurring of the lines between our work and home lives.

Hotdesking poses an obvious risk, as any information you leave lying around could be picked up and utilised by the next person to use it, or the person after them. But the reality is that there is always some level of danger in leaving things lying around. Even in a seemingly secure and friendly workplace, there may be people (whether staff or visitors) who could use your information to access your workstation or accounts.

The benefit of a Clear Desk Policy for cybersecurity is that it encourages employees to be mindful about what they leave on their desks. While it may not always be 100% effective, it will greatly reduce the potential for sensitive information being left around workstations, and impress on employees the importance of keeping this information close to your chest, and not lying around for anyone to pilfer.

It will also help people to understand what exactly sensitive information is. A birthday card for instance may seem completely innocuous, but if someone knows your birthday and how old you are, they may have a clue to your passwords, PIN numbers or security questions. These kinds of clues can be rendered redundant by better password security, but cybersecurity should always be multifaceted, and not assume that everyone’s passwords will always be strong – particularly as password security can be a hard thing to apply.


Clear Desk Policy and ISO compliance

Another important consideration is ISO compliance. ISO certification provides a framework for businesses to meet common standards in various areas. Not only are Clear Desk Policies relevant for ISO 27001 compliance – an international standard for information security – they also support basic privacy principles.

Here in the UK, the Data Protection Act and GDPR requires businesses to ensure that personal information is kept secure at all times. A Clear Desk Policy is a simple way to secure physical data and devices within the workplace, leaving you free to focus on securing your networks and systems from external threats.


How to apply a Clear Desk Policy

The basic principles of a Clear Desk Policy are simple, and should be easy to apply if they are communicated clearly. Employees should be encouraged to:

  • Clear their desk at the end of the work day.
  • Lock any sensitive documents in secure drawers.
  • Shred and recycle any documents that are no longer needed.
  • Never leave any printouts in the printer.

A clear desk policy also applies to any devices you use in your workspace:

  • Lock your computer whenever you’re not using it (Win + L on Windows or Ctrl-Cmd-Q on Mac).
  • Log out of your account at the end of the work day.
  • Store mobile and removable devices in locked cabinets when they’re not in use.

A clear desk policy can improve your data security with minimal investment or change, and improve people’s wellbeing, removing the stress of security breaches. Knowing where vital documents are at all times is an effective way to keep worry levels low across your organisation – and tidy desks often lead to tidier minds. For help implementing a Clear Desk Policy or beefing up your cybersecurity, contact a member of the Sota team here.

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