Can My Employer See What I Do Online?
If you're like most people, you do a bit of personal web browsing at work. Maybe you check your email, pop into Facebook, or do a little online shopping at lunch time. But have you ever wondered... can your employer see what websites you visit? Here's what you need to know about employee internet monitoring...
Is Your Employer Monitoring Your Online Activities?
Would you like to know if your boss is aware that you're shopping, playing games or chatting online instead of writing that sales report or handling the pile of paperwork in your inbox? That depends on your boss. Chances are the answer is YES. There are several ways The Man can look over your digital shoulder, and some things that you can do to safeguard yourself.
A CNET study done way back in 2006 claimed that workers spent 20 percent of their time online for personal use or entertainment. Even more surprising, 13 percent were said to use the Internet for dating, gambling or 'adult' sites while at work. I would guess the numbers have only gone up in the past few years, with the exploding popularity of Facebook and other social media.
That translates into a lot of unproductive hours in the work day, and is a powerful motivator for your employer to crack down on Internet use that's not work-related. I'm sure you know people who seem to fritter away the entire day on the Web. That's not what they're being paid to do, and most people agree that employers have a right to stop it.
My suggestion is to assume that your employer can see EVERYTHING you do online while at work -- because they probably can. But that doesn't mean your privacy is being violated. Most employers require staff to agree to an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), which spells out how/when you will be allowed to use the Internet and other computing resources that are owned by the company.
Employees may feel indignant or betrayed if they find out their Internet usage is being monitored without their knowledge. So it's important for employers to create and distribute to all employees an AUP disclosing any monitoring and control of their use of company assets such as the computers on their desks and Internet access.
Any business with a decent IT staff can easily monitor the activity on the company network. There are even special software packages that your employer can use to keep track of all Internet activity, even if employees are traveling or working at home. This software can send a report on all visited web sites as well as outbound and inbound communication, such as email and instant messaging.
This level of detail is necessary to document employee misconduct, but most likely nobody will ever look at it unless a problem arises. And of course, this assumes you're using a company-issued computer, or your employer's Internet connection. If you're using your own computer, with your own Internet service, you needn't worry.
Likewise, if you're frittering (or Twittering) away your work hours on your smartphone, your employer won't be able to "see" what you're doing. There is an exception, though. If your smartphone is connected to a company wifi signal, everything you do is exposed. Turn off wifi and use your mobile provider's data plan to maintain the privacy of your smartphone activity.
Don't assume your office email is safe from prying eyes, either. It's trivial for your employer to scan all emails for certain keywords to make sure that company secrets are not being shared with outsides. A casual email to a friend containing "insider information" can violate SEC regulations, resulting in a fine for the company. Opening a virus-laden email while at work could expose your company to serious security breaches. So there are good business reasons for your employer to monitor or restrict workplace email activity.
What About VPNs and Encryption?
Savvy readers may be thinking that using encrypted web browsing or a VPN (virtual private network) service or would provide a way to hide their online activity while at work. That's true to a degree. Using "https" to connect to your favorite websites will encrypt the traffic between your computer and the Web, but it won't hide the fact that you accessed those sites. To use a postal metaphor, bosses could see the "envelopes" that are coming and going, but not the contents. They'd know, for example, that you visited Facebook.com, Amazon.com, and TimeWastingGames.com but they would not be able to see what you did there.
Using a VPN at work to access the web would provide additional cover. Bosses would see only that you accessed ONE website, the VPN server. But of course, that would be a big red flag that you're trying to hide your tracks.
How Much is Too Much?
Most bosses understand that life is hectic, and won't mind if you check your email once in a while, or do a little online shopping on your lunch break. But if you spend your entire work day on Facebook, eventually your lack or productivity will be obvious.
If your boss can figure out your Twitter username, it would be trivial for him or her to "follow" you and see what's on your mind, besides work. And for the same reasons, if you're hanging out on Facebook instead of doing data entry, you'd better make sure the boss is not your "friend" on Facebook. Even if you're socializing via your home computer, remember that social media can be very public. I remember reading about an employee who decided to play hooky from work by claiming he was sick after a fun night out. He posted that on Facebook and was caught. Idea: Make sure your privacy settings only allow friends to view your profile and postings. Better idea: Don't skip work and brag about it on Facebook.
Of course it's tempting to do certain types of online activity at work, because typically you have a very fast connection to the Internet. Someone asked me if his boss could detect the fact that he was using a Bitorrent server to download hundreds of gigabytes of pirated videos at work. The answer is YES. The presence of the program on his hard drive, as well as the dowhnloaded files, would be a giveaway. But this would also create a noticeable drag on the company network, which could impact the ability of co-workers to do real work. Downloading from "file sharing" sites at work can also expose your employer to copyright infringements, as well as viruses and spyware that are able to spread on the company network and wreak untold havoc.
Surfing at Work
If you just cannot resist the urge to surf the web while at work, here are some simple precautions:
- Be familiar with the company's Internet usage policy.
- Moderate your usage accordingly.
- Never venture into "adult territory" or access illegal/unlicensed materials online.
- Use your personal email account for personal stuff, and your work email for all business related matters.
- Use your smartphone with cellular data plan (not wifi) for personal or private web access
None of these things is foolproof, since every keystroke can potentially be monitored. Even clearing out your web browser's history and temporary files may give you a false sense of security. If your employer is really sneaky, they can use video cameras to monitor you. As I mentioned before, it's not likely that anyone will ever poke into your workday web history, unless you give them a reason to suspect something isn't right.
From the employer's perspective, it just might be that Internet access at work is "baked in" to their assumptions, and they care more about productivity than policing your bitstream.A comment I found on on Workforce.com makes that point:
- We ask so much of our employees. The 9-to-5 is no longer relevant. If my employee, who is giving up night and weekends for me, wants to spends a few minutes during the workday posting to Facebook, or checking the score of last night’s game, or buying something on Amazon, I just don’t care... unless and until it reaches the level of distraction and impacts performance. Then, however, we are treating the performance problem, not the technology problem, which is the appropriate and practical solution.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 6 Jan 2020
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Can My Employer See What I Do Online? (Posted: 6 Jan 2020)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved