Computer Privacy At Work
Can the boss really see when you're surfing the Internet at work? Can the geeks from the IT Department monitor everything you do on your PC? Are any of them keeping tabs on those last twenty minutes of your lunch hour when you're playing Solitaire?
Is Big Brother Watching?
The real answer, is most likely. Corporate IT departments usually have network tracking and auditing programs in place that can record an employee's Internet usage, downloaded files and activity on a PC. They can probably even take remote control of any computer on the company's network, install new software, and scan your hard drive for questionable files. And don't even think about email privacy. If you use a computer at work, you should assume that ANYTHING you send or receive by email will be monitored, filtered, or scanned for certain keywords.
Some businesses have a more laid-back approach when it comes to monitoring employees' computer activities. As long as work is getting done and there is nothing offensive or objectionable on a staff member's computer, employees are pretty much left alone. Other companies may need to adhere to stricter monitoring practices, either due to the nature of the business, or to the number of employees on the network. For example; imagine a company with over 10,000 employees, and a large percentage of staff were watching YouTube on their computers during the workday. Not only would this halt productivity, but it could put quite a strain on the corporate network's bandwidth, causing a myriad of problems with the network's performance.
In this age of spam, viruses, rootkits and other forms of malware, it is in the best interest of a company's technological well-being to be on the more restrictive side, rather than the permissive, when it comes to monitoring computer use. Most Human Resources and Information Technology Departments have computer usage policies outlining what is acceptable and unacceptable use of the company's computers. Employees usually receive this documentation upon hire.
Surfing at Work
The reality is that most of us will at some time or another, use our work computers in a non-job related fashion. Just like we will use the phone, fax or copier for some personal task. One recent study (commissioned by a company selling employee monitoring software) stated that "More than 81 minutes of work time per employee is wasted doing non-work related computer activity." I doubt that anyone is shocked by this. People are checking their mail, paying a few bills, catching up on news, or doing a little shopping. Twenty years ago, employees did pretty much the same thing, but (less efficiently) without computers.
I believe any business that allows employees to take care of some of the stress of daily life during work hours will see a happier, healthier and ultimately more productive workforce. Of course you always give 110% at work, and we HOPE the boss knows that, but that doesn't mean you have to make your Internet usage at work obvious.
If you must access personal email during the workday, use a free webmail account. Hotmail, Yahoo and Google all offer free webmail services. Best of all, your emails cannot be monitored. The only thing corporate IT can potentially see is that you went to Hotmail.com, or Yahoo.com. They cannot see what you are sending or receiving within your personal webmail account, as long as you use the secure login option.
And if you're tempted once in awhile to interrupt a mundane or stressful workday by browsing the internet, there are some ways to anonymize your web surfing and keep your recreational cyber-travels on the down-low. Setting ethics and potential ire of the boss aside, how might one go about sneaky surfing? First of all, forget about simply deleting the history files from your browser. Deleting history files doesn't prevent the IT department from being able to see where you've been on the Internet. There are an endless number of tools that can recover deleted files, and network admins don't even need that data to track your internet usage.
One possible way to keep your browsing anonymous is to use anonymizers. Anonymizers are web-based services or downloadable programs that keep your Internet browsing anonymous. One site that provides this service is Anonymouse. You enter in the site you want to visit and it acts as a proxy, hiding your destination from the boss, and your computer's IP address from the destination web server.
Another way anonymous browsing is achieved is though onion routing. Through onion routing, your Internet communication travels through a sequence of onion routers, via an untraceable pathway. Tor is a shareware product that will allow you to install the tools to browse through these onion routers also known as "proxies". You might also want to check out this listing of anonymizer sites and services. Be advised though, it is best to familiarize yourself with your company's Internet and computer usage policies to ensure you do not engage in anything that might get you fired. Be especially careful about installing unauthorized software at work, as it could cause unexpected problems such as malware, poor network performance, etc.
And despite the name, anonymizers are not 100% guaranteed anonymous. Additionally, they usually are unable to access ftp or secure (SSL) sites, although a service called ProxyDrop claims it can access secure sites. And of course the savvier your company's IT Department, the more likely they will have these anonymizers blocked. It will take some diligence on your part to find an anonymizer site they haven't blocked.
Other Options: Remote Desktop Access
Another option would be the free LogMeIn.com service, which will allow you to login to your home computer, and do your surfing and email tasks remotely. For the more adventurous and determined, SSH tunneling can be used to bypass corporate or school firewalls. For help setting up something like this, here's an SSH Tunneling How-to guide. This method may not work if your company has SSH traffic blocked.
It's an ongoing struggle for IT Departments everywhere, giving just enough access to ensure that users on a network are able to efficiently do their work, while trying to preserve network security. There are endless debates about freedom of Internet browsing, and whether or not restricting certain websites is a form of censorship. While the question is a valid one in a setting such as a school or university; there isn't much room for debate when it comes to a corporate network.
Businesses own the computers and the network, and must have policies in place dictating acceptable and unacceptable conduct, and employees are expected to follow those policies. Although there are always evolving techniques for anonymous surfing and getting around firewalls, it might be the safest bet to do your recreational browsing on your computer at home.
Posted by Bob Rankin on 7 Aug 2007
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Computer Privacy At Work (Posted: 7 Aug 2007)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved