Dear Lifehacker, I'm concerned that I'm being monitored at work, but I'm not sure how to tell. I don't think my employers have installed anything on my computer, but does that matter? Also, if I am being monitored, is there anything I can do about it? I'm not really doing anything wrong, but I don't like anyone looking over my shoulder. Sincerely, Productively Paranoid
You should always assume that you're being monitored at work. It's pretty tough to know 100 per cent for certain, as companies can track you through the network without installing anything on your computer. If you want to look for signs of monitoring, however, there's a lot you can do. There are also multiple measures you can take to ensure your privacy.
A Note of Caution: Blocking Your Employer's Monitoring Will Look Suspicious
Before you start blocking your company from keeping track of your activity, you should be aware that doing so may not be much of a solution. If they are monitoring what you and everyone else does all day it's going to look suspicious when your computer is suddenly providing no data at all. If you block all tracking they may actually come to you and tell you they know what you're doing and to stop doing it. For that reason, you may want to reserve these strategies for the occasional time when you're doing something you'd rather your employer didn't know about. That's not to imply that you should do anything bad or illegal, but if, for example, you're not allowed to send personal email at all during the day and you need to send one, you can hide that activity so you don't get caught. Employ these strategies if your company imposes some unreasonable rules or you're just don't want anyone looking at private information on your screen. Don't use it to get away with bad things.
Root Out Tracking Software On Your Machine
In general, companies are going to limit what they track to your email and possibly internet activity, because it's much easier to do. They may require any outgoing email to go through their IMAP, POP3 or Exchange servers, even if you use a personal email account on your computer. Additionally, they can track any activity that goes through their network (but we'll get to that later). If you need to send a personal email, simply use webmail. This will only avoid sending it through company servers, but that is often the only issue. If your webmail client utilises HTTPS and your company isn't watching your screen, all they'll know is that you accessed webmail, and not how you used it. Unless they're concerned about the amount of time you're spending on non-work websites, this should be sufficient for most people.
If your company wants to monitor your physical screen, they're going to have to do it with some sort of remote desktop software. Online Tech Tips suggests that the first thing you want to do is check for any third-party remote desktop software like RealVNC, TightVNC, UltraVNC, LogMeIn, GoToMyPC and so on. You'll find them in the Windows Start Menu or System Tray, or OS X's Applications folder or System Preferences (as a Preference Pane). You can also conduct a system-wide search. You don't really need to check for built-in options because you'd know if someone was connected to your screen on either platform. With Windows it would actually tell you. On OS X, you'll (usually) see an icon in the menubar. That's easy enough to miss, however, so if you go into the System Preferences app and choose Sharing, you can see if Screen Sharing or Remote Management is enabled. If it is, outside parties have the ability to connect to your screen. To stop that, you can just turn it off.
Block Network Monitoring
Network monitoring is actually an easy problem to solve. The reason your company can see what you're doing online is because your activity is passing through their local network unencrypted. To prevent that, you need to encrypt your traffic. The easiest way to accomplish that is by setting up a VPN and proxy. This is a more extreme measure, but if you want to ensure your network privacy it's a step you'll want to take. Read our guide on encrypting your web browsing with Hamachi and Privoxy for details on how to set this up.
Overall, if you're being tracked, there isn't much you can do without raising an eyebrow, so it's best to just keep your work and home life entirely separate if you're concerned about your privacy. That said, if you need to hide a little activity from your employer, you can use these strategies to do so. There's also something to be said for just buying your IT person a beer and asking for his or her help. These problems are often most easily solved by making friends, not utilising the technology at your disposal.