Is Your Privacy Protected on a Work Computer?

Written by on November 15, 2012 in Money - No comments | Print this page

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When employees are at work every day, and the job includes a computer with a convenient Internet connection, it can be a temptation to take care of some personal business on the work computer. Maybe the employee wants to check their bank account on payday to make sure their direct deposit went through.

Maybe it’s a slow day and they want to take a peek at Facebook or Twitter to pass a few minutes, or maybe they’re feeling under the weather and want to look up their symptoms on WebMD. After all, the computer is right there, and it’s not like the company pays attention, right?

As it turns out, the company may or may not be bothering to pay attention. Chances are that if an employee really does just briefly use the Internet for fleeting reasons like these, it will never come up, as long as they remain productive.

The problem comes when employees believe their company has no right to monitor their computer usage. Multiple court cases have found in favor of companies who keep an eye on what their employees are doing on work computers. Some companies do have a corporate culture which is relaxed enough to allow an occasional check of personal email, but employees should never be fooled into thinking the employer has no right to check on what they’re doing.

Company Email

If a company has its own email system, every email in that system is owned by the company and can be reviewed at any time; this includes sent and received messages both. Even if the employee deletes the email and empties the recycle bin, the email still exists on the mail server and will be saved in the next tape backup. From the company’s perspective, this system protects them from employees trying to send industry secrets to competitors and from employees who are wasting time. Work email is not covered under existing privacy laws for things like wiretapping or letter-opening; after all, the employer owns both the desktop and the mail server.


Web Monitoring

Some employees think their personal emails will remain private if they use a personal Web-based email account like Gmail or Yahoo, but this is by no means guaranteed. Even if the employee cleans up their online tracks by deleting cookies and browser history, this only protects the employee from being found out by someone who happens to use that computer. The company’s server may be recording any data which comes in or out of the employee’s desktop, and anything that looks suspicious, like excessive Web use or views of competitors’ websites, can be flagged for later review.

Keystroke Logging

Some employers go so far as to use logging programs which record every single thing an employee types during the day. The keystroke logger may only be used to keep track of how much typing the employee does while working, which can be useful for keeping track of the productivity of data entry and word processing employees. However, some keystroke loggers do record the actual characters being typed.

Saved Files

Anything saved on a company-owned computer could be viewed by the employer; again, the computer is their property. Some employers use software which allows managers to remotely see files on worker desktops. Like most issues of employee privacy, it comes down to a matter of degree. An employee who saves a picture of puppies to use as a desktop background is not likely to be questioned, but an employee writing a screenplay on the company desktop could well be called to an unpleasant meeting with human resources.

Exceptions

While most computer-related employee privacy court cases in the U.S. have found in favor of companies, there have been exceptions where the courts ruled in favor of the employee. In the 2010 case Stengart v. LovingCare Agency Inc., the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that by reading an employee’s message sent from a personal email account to an attorney, the company violated attorney-client privilege even though company policy was that employees had no reasonable expectation of privacy for Web usage. On the other hand, a similar case in California was settled in favor of the company because that employee had used the work-owned email account.

Some unions have successfully negotiated restrictions on computer monitoring into their contracts, and government employees have some additional protection from the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure by the government.

Disclosure

Employers are not currently required to disclose the nature or extent of their monitoring of employee computer usage, although many employees do make their policies known in the company handbook or by asking the employee to sign a computer usage agreement upon hire.

Basically, the safest route for employees to take is to assume that their company can find out about anything done on the work computer. If an employee wants to keep something completely private, it needs to be done on computers not owned by the employer.

This is a guest post.   Cecil & Geiser are dedicated to protecting the state of Ohio. With decades of experience getting clients the results they need, they still treat every client as if they’re the only case in their office. If you’ve been injured in a car accident, contact them for a free consultation and have the best Ohio law firm in your corner.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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