How Much Privacy Do You Have at Work?

How Much Privacy Do You Have at Work?

The typical modern worker uses email and the internet for lots of work and personal reasons.  Sometimes the purposes of those uses blur; certainly the time spent on the internet is often a mixture of personal and professional.  It seems almost effortless to multi-task, and we can handle a query for work together with a quick look at the deal of the day on Amazon.com.

The Problem for the Corporation.

But the typical modern corporation grows ever more concerned about its exposure by computer use, and for good reason.  Sexual harassment can arise easily with the help of technology.  Consider these examples, all from recent cases of mine:  a man watches internet pornography on a computer in a cubicle (sound travels); emails with links to risque videos are misaddressed to someone who finds them offensive; email jokes with offensive racial or sexual content make the rounds through a company through that easy “forward to” function.  As soon as the company finds out, it needs to act.  An effective way to deal with sexual harassment claims can be to fire the harasser.  If the entire place is infected, though, the company may instead put strict limitations on the use of its equipment.

The Extent of Corporate Surveillance. 

As a result of the dangers of computer misuse, coupled with the incredible array of time wasters available on the internet, some companies have instituted a zero tolerance ban on personal use of the company computer system.  Others are more realistic, recognizing that employees who work more than eight hours per day may need to engage in internet shopping, check with the children, or just relax for a few minutes.  According to a study by the American Management Association published in 2008, more than half of the employers surveyed monitored and reviewed website connections, almost two-thirds blocked access to certain websites, and a quarter monitored the time spent and the phone numbers called on company phones.  A quarter of employers also used video surveillance to counter theft, violence or sabotage.

Even if you are working harmoniously with your employer, the lack of privacy has other impact. Some employers use keystroke loggers, which can measure productive work, but also record passwords, emails, and the like.  Even when the level of intrusion is lower, an employee needs to remember that an IT department employee can often read electronic traffic through the company’s system, even when the employee is utilizing his own, non-corporate email account.  That is, an employee who logs onto his yahoo email account may inadvertently leave tracks that allows the employer to read the message sent, if not messages received.  You have to remember that the corporation is made up of individuals, and they may not all be nice people.  If it’s easy to intercept your facebook password, someone may use it to mischief or worse.  Your password to your on-line banking account may be revealed to the IT department if you pay your bills online.

Why Employees Need to Monitor their Own Behavior.

A significant percentage of employers who engage in recording their employees’ computer use, phone calls, or movements do not tell employees that they are doing it.  Others mention it in the policy handbook, but not otherwise.  Under the Maryland Wiretap law, recording workplace phone conversations without consent is legal if the recording apparatus is part of the company’s telephone equipment and there is a business reason for recording conversations, such as evaluating employees’ interactions with customers.  This same law probably makes video and audio surveillance illegal, but not video-only surveillance.

Regardless of the degree of corporate tolerance, the employee should keep vigilant in using the employer’s system, remembering that he is a guest in the employer’s house.  You may feel at home in your office, but it is a mistake to assume that interaction done quietly on a company’s system will necessarily remain private.  Some of my clients, for example, have made the mistake of sending emails to me from their company email account.  Notifying a lawyer that you are unhappy about your work treatment is especially problematic.  You may forfeit the attorney-client privilege and reveal your private communications to the very company you mean to pursue.

To protect yourself:

  • use your own cell phone;
  • if the blackberry belongs to the corporation, assume it can read what you put on it;
  • assume your email is being monitored — engage in personal email from home;
  • don’t search for adult, pornographic, or sports sites at work;
  • don’t use your company computer to do your banking or other financial transactions;
  • ask if you are being recorded or monitored;
  • if you blog or comment about your employer, do not assume that your comments will necessarily stay anonymous (more about this later).

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