Can The Boss See What I Do Online?

Category: Privacy

If you're like most people, you do a little 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 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 and p**nographic 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.
Employee Internet Monotiring

My suggestion is to assume that your employer can see EVERYTHING you do online while at work -- because they probably can. And 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.

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.

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 Twittering, it would be a very good idea to never mention that your hate your job, or even jokingly threaten the boss with bodily harm. That could turn a bad hair day into a frogmarch to the parking lot, with a security escort.

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 named Kyle Doyle 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 the other day if his boss could detect the fact that he was using a file sharing program to download gigabytes of music files at work. The answer is YES. The presence of the program on his hard drive, as well as the music 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 (P2P) sites at work can also expose your employer to 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 to a few minutes a day.
  • Never venture into "adult" territory online.
  • Use your personal email account for personal stuff, and your work email for all business related matters.
  • Use a tool like Logmein for remote access to your home computer while at work. (See Free Remote Access Tools)

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. Cameras can be hidden in bookshelves, air vents and other places. If you flagrantly violate your company's Internet usage policy, my advice is to assume you WILL be caught. Is it worth putting your job in danger?

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Can The Boss See What I Do Online?"

Posted by:

15 Oct 2012

I wonder how many people are aware that using company internet connections for personal use is stealing. It is no different that taking a pen home or using the photocopier for personal copying. Not matter how you try to soften the thought all of this is stealing.

Posted by:

Nigel Appleby
15 Oct 2012

I always remember that any communication, phone, email, social media and even voice face to face can become public unless encrypted, and even then who knows what might happen. Consequently, I am always careful what I say, except to my wife. I have also told employees, friends and family the same, however I've seen from Facebook etc that not everyone takes notice.
Yes I live a boring life but I don't have to worry about embarrassing disclosures.

Posted by:

Harold P. Morgan
15 Oct 2012

Truisms: 1. Never point a gun you are positive is unloaded at anyone. The reason is obvious.

2. As a retired radio and television broadcaster I know another truism: If there is microphone in the room....even if you are absolutely certain it is off or disconnected....NEVER say anything you would not want anyone else to hear. Lots of careers have been stalled by "turned off" microphones.

3. Like wise.....keep your personal stuff at home on your own PC....not at work on your boss's system...even if you are "sure" he/she does not monitor.

Posted by:

15 Oct 2012

If you use the company's equipment and bandwidth, they're paying for it and have a legal right to know what it's being used for.
If I supply the computer and pay you to Google tongue depressors and you go shopping for new shoes, you're stealing my time and money.

Posted by:

15 Oct 2012

I'm not a lawyer, but aren't hidden cameras and microphones illegal?

Posted by:

15 Oct 2012

I have to do a lot of research, most of it on the Internet. So, I don't care if my boss can see it. I also don't like social media and I don't have a Facebook or Twitter account. Never signed up.

Posted by:

15 Oct 2012

Here in the Philippines nothing is safe from view while you are online. A new Cybercrime law allows the government to view everything you post online in real time. Make the wrong person mad and it is 12 years in jail. Don't think they can do that in the USA? Think again...

Posted by:

16 Oct 2012

The only "personal"time on the boss's computer system should be an emergency message. Employers should allow for "picking-up a sick kid" from school or injury to immediate family situation. The boss could even ask for salary reimbursement - in my opinion.

Posted by:

Lee McIntyre
16 Oct 2012

I'm retired, but for many years I managed a religious radio station. During that time, computers morphed from offsite mainframe to desktop, to portable, to laptop. Our policy for employee use of the computer was simple and understandable: "It's the company's computer, the company's Internet service, and you're on company time. Just do company work, that's all."

We also had our IT guy monitor network usage periodically. When we discovered a disk jockey who was surfing p**nographic web sites at the same time he was announcing religious song titles on the air, we canned him.

He applied for unemployment insurance, but when we showed the insurance adjuster our computer logs and the station's operating log with the disk jockey's signature showing that he was on the clock - and on the air - while visiting adult sites, the former employee's claim was denied.

Posted by:

16 Oct 2012

When i was young there was no such thing as a social use of a computer. There was no tablets/smartphones. See what technolgy has brought us? Further more they were no cell phones. You say how did you live in that world? W ell it was really slow compared to today. And relaxing.

Posted by:

16 Oct 2012

I work in a small business, and I do a little bit of personal time at work, so do other employees. The company is more than welcome to look at anything I do online, no problem. But I also do a lot of work at home, I have a faster internet connection at home and download a lot of manuals for my work. I've also made part of my personal Windows SkyDrive site available for the download of the manuals. I don't get paid for the time I spend at home doing company work. don't think I should, some of us are just wired differently.

Posted by:

Art Frailey
16 Oct 2012

Yep, Best to keep work at work, and home at home! Unless, of course, you and your boss have made some sort of 'other'understandings',such as Michael and his boss

Posted by:

18 Oct 2012

In reply to some comments: I reckon we should all give up work just in case either an emergency crops up. Doing uppaid work is something we should all do. Todays world is awful compared to previous times isn't it terrible that technological envancements have totally ruined our once wonderful lives?

Some of you people need an intelligence injection. The rules of use of company resources and time is the same as it ever was regardless of computer and internet availability. No boss cares what you do in your own time, but of course they will if you do it on their's.

Use your head, everyone knows the score on this!

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