Employee monitoring software — which you can safely expect to be installed on your work-issued computer — allows your workplace to view every site you visit, every email you’ve sent, and even all the personal passwords you save. Maybe you’ve already come to terms with the fact that expectations for privacy have been essentially eradicated. Even so, it’s probably not a great idea to give your employer easy access to every unproductive moment of your day, or every off-colour joke you make over Slack. Here’s what to know about how most work laptops are monitored and what it means for your privacy as an employee.
You are being monitored, if not in real-time
According to the security experts in this Wirecutter article, you should assume that yes, you are indeed being monitored on your work laptop. However, they contend that for most of us, the fear of being heavily surveilled at work is unwarranted.
Chances are that when you received your work-issued laptop, it came with surveillance and security software. The extent to which you’re being monitored, though, depends on factors like the size of your company, the resources they dedicate to surveillance, and what type of information you handle for your job. For instance, Wirecutter points out that if you work with health records, financial data, or government contracts, you can count on your employer keeping a careful eye on what you do.
From G Suite to personal desktop folders, your employer can see it all
Business News Daily notes that “it’s important to remember that a work device is not your property — it belongs to the company.” Operate under the assumption that everything you do on your work device can be legally recorded by your employer, and that it’s incredibly easy for IT to access.
Browsing history: not private
Be wary of conducting personal activities like scrolling through social media, working on a side hustle, or searching for a new job on your work laptop. Your employer’s access to that online behaviour could come back to bite you, Joe Rejeski, CEO and Founder of avenue X group, tells Glassdoor. “Even if your coworkers are doing some craziness on their work computers, you could be the one that is made an example of.”
Google docs: not private
The Freedom of the Press Foundation addresses the reasons why you shouldn’t use a company-issued Google account to store your private data: Namely, admin with G Suite Enterprise can search for specific phrases in an employee’s emails and documents, and employers can “set up audits to be notified of suspicious behaviour and create custom scripts for retaining data.”
Messaging your coworkers: not private
Does this lack of privacy irk you? Be careful venting about it over Slack. It’s easy to feel like Slack and similar messaging apps are private conversations with your coworkers, but those messages are kept on a server and are easily retrieved. Slack “has access to all of your chats,” says Trevor Timm in an interview with Fast Company, “[as well as] any internal communication you may not want in public,” including private conversations. Wirecutter recommends a third-party app (like Signal) on your personal phone for all your side-conversation needs.
Desktop folders: you guessed it–not private
Again, remember that your work-issued laptop is not your property. Rejeski tells Glassdoor about a company that went out of business and decided that “securely erasing personal data from the work computers wasn’t exactly a priority for management.” Former employees had no clue what happened to their computers or the information stored on them, e.g. folders that included tax returns, family photos, and other kinds of personal data.
What not to do on your work laptop
So, what does all this surveillance mean for your laptop habits? Here’s some general protocol of what to avoid doing on your work-issued devices.
- Don’t save personal passwords or store private information in keychains. Your employer could theoretically access and/or wipe them at a moment’s notice.
- Don’t scroll through social media, watch Netflix, or do anything unproductive that could come back to haunt you.
- Don’t talk smack over Slack, or message anything you wouldn’t want your employer to see.
- Don’t search for new jobs, since your current employer can see your browsing habits.
- Don’t work on your side hustle, unless you want HR to flag the fact that you’re working for someone else during company time.
- Don’t try to remove the employee monitoring software on your own. It may be a tempting act of resistance, but this will only call attention to yourself.
Best practices for your work laptop
Here’s what else you can do to minimise the extent of employer surveillance.
- Shut your computer down after work.
- Cover your webcam when not in use.
- To avoid being overheard, here’s a tip from this Reddit thread: “Buy shitty headphones with a mic and cut the cable. Plug that into your laptop.” You could also get your own headset with a hardware mute button and leave it muted until you need to speak.
- Type frequently to make it look like you’re working.
- In order to protect data for both yourself and your workplace, always make sure you’re logged into a secure, password-protected internet connection. Never leave your laptop unattended or wide-open in public spaces, especially if you handle sensitive information in your role.
The bottom line
You don’t need to assume that human eyes are on you at all times. However, if your employer needs to find a valid reason to terminate you (e.g. in the case of lay-offs), they have access to a whole lot of data about your daily activity that they can retroactively sift through. Luckily, with the knowledge of how you’re being surveilled, you can act accordingly with the concrete tips above.
In an act of radical transparency, I want to disclose the fact that I checked Twitter approximately forty times in the time it took me to research and write this article. Yes, on my work-issued laptop. The irony does, indeed, escape me at times.