- Employers can remotely install or remove software and can even erase data on employee devices.
- Employees should assume that everything they do on their work computer is being watched and tracked.
- Many people access their nonwork accounts with their work computers, but it exposes their personal data to the IT team.
When it comes to technology, the expectation of privacy is prevalent. However, when it comes to your workplace technology, that isn't the case. Your work devices aren't as private as you may think.
Although most businesses access your information only if they suspect you are not as productive as you should be, it's safe to assume that you're being monitored to some extent. With the help of employee monitoring software, employers can view every file you access, every website you browse and even every email you've sent.
Deleting a few files and clearing your browser history does not keep your work computer from revealing your internet activity. Here are seven ways your work computer is betraying your privacy.
1. Your emails are not as private as you think.
"Many companies archive all emails indefinitely. Employees may not realize this. Organizations might search their mail archive for various reasons, such as discovery related to a court case. A government agency may conduct searches pursuant to a public records request by a newspaper. Emails unrelated to the request might come up in the search, including personal emails." – Beth McIntire, cybersecurity analyst, BB&T [See related story: 7 Ways to Make Your Emails More Professional]
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2. Clearing your browser history won't help you.
"An employer can easily monitor and report on an employee's internet usage, because all the outgoing network traffic flows through a router or firewall that provides that capability. For example, when you are onsite in the office, your computer is connected to the local area network (LAN). For reasons of security, there is a device that sits between the company LAN and the public internet – a firewall. It allows network traffic to websites outbound, and carefully controls and limits inbound network access." – Timothy Platt, senior technical trainer, Amazon Web Services
3. Your phone is not private either.
"Most companies have an internet filter of some kind installed. These devices, such as Barracuda Web Filter appliance, can track all internet activity from every computer [or] device on the network, including your mobile phone that you connect to the office Wi-Fi." – Peter Davis, owner, 311 Media
4. Remote workers beware: Your location is visible.
"Many large IT providers, like IBM, offer affordable mobile management products, like MaaS360, that enable employers to strictly control portable devices. Employers can remotely erase lost employee devices used to access company information and install or remove software as well. Again, on company-owned devices, there's not much argument, but employee mobile device usage policies can be used to enforce appropriate use policies and end-of-employment data removal policies on employee-owned devices as well. This is critical because BYOD has become so pervasive in today's business environment, and mobile devices are so frequently stolen or lost. In cases like these, we can reach out and scrub information from those devices or immediately cut off access to company resources. Of course, sometimes there are false alarms that can be easily resolved with remote tracking features in most mobile management programs. A client called our support desk one day to report a stolen notebook PC, and using the GPS tracking feature of MaaS360, we were able to locate the notebook on a counter at the other end of the building where an employee had mislaid it." – Jeff Hoffman, president, ACT Network Solutions
5. Employers can track every word you type.
"Numerous applications exist for employers to install on employees' computers that are essentially hacking programs. The vendors and employers consider them ethical hacking tools when used legally. For example, these programs can often protect against a rogue employee emailing out a list of credit cards or Social Security numbers. These programs often upload activity in real time to a cloud console for review by the employer, and can include items like browsing history, screenshots taken every X minutes whenever an Excel or Word doc is open, keystrokes entered, and screenshots of emails when opened, just to name a few." – Bob Herman, co-founder and president, IT Tropolis
6. Your productivity could be monitored.
"We have employees all over the world. Unfortunately, after a few negative experiences, we searched for a solution to track the actions our employees take while logged in during working hours. We now require all out-of-office staff to use TimeDoctor.com. We track screenshots, time per project, time per software used, webcam shots and metrics of productivity. In the event of 'low productivity,' for example, an email is sent out to our team leader. Of course, the workers are acutely aware of the software, and our productivity has greatly increased since implementing it three months ago. Also, some workers are unwilling to use tracking software, and that is fine by me. I feel it helps to weed out unscrupulous workers." – Brad M. Shaw, president and CEO, Dallas Web Design
7. Every file you access is visible.
"Working from a server? We know every file you've pulled and put on the server, and when. There are many more ways, but clients always ask me, 'Can my boss see what I'm doing?' and the answer is always yes." – Justin Esgar, CEO and president, Virtua Computers
Things you shouldn't do on a work computer
Employees might be surprised to learn how many businesses use monitoring software to track employees' work computer activity. As an employee, do not use work devices for nonwork activities, such as checking social media or shopping online, and never share confidential information.
Jeremy Owens, chief marketing officer of Seriously Smoked, advises that there are three things employees should ever do on a work computer:
- Save personal passwords. Many people access their nonwork accounts using their work computers. However, you are exposing yourself to the risk of sharing your personal data with the IT team. Remember, encrypted transactions are not impenetrable. With the right knowledge and tools, hackers can quickly access your personal data.
- Do any nonwork-related activities. Your work computer exists solely to be used as a device to produce work output. You look unprofessional if management finds out you use your work computer for irrelevant activities.
- Search for jobs. Aside from being fired should your employer find out, you harm your relationship with your supervisors and the human resources department. (Who can trust an unethical employee?) Further, if prospective employers reach out to your current employer for a reference, your employer is likely to share these details with the prospective employer.
When it comes to a work laptop or computer, it is best to treat your work computer like a borrowed computer – which it is. Ask yourself if your employer would be satisfied with the content you're browsing. If the answer is no, it's not something you should do on your company's time and equipment.
Erik Rivera, CEO of Thrive Talk, shared his take on what you shouldn't do on a work computer:
- Write sensitive emails. As a general rule, do not use your personal email at work. Employers could be using keystroke tracking, and there may be messages you do not want your boss to see.
- Share strong opinions on company chats. This is a very important rule to follow. Not only can an employer see what you typed on company chat, they can see the entire chat log in detail.
- Keep personal files on the work computer. Avoid saving or sharing personal files to a company desktop. This can become easily accessed. Forget the boss, do you want the IT team seeing everything you've saved?
Additional reporting by Andreas Rivera and Brittney Helmrich.