Monitoring Privacy: email@work

email@work: clocking virtual personal lives


Long ago, before the Internet became the dominant means of communicating with friends and family, the personal call was the No. 1 office no-no. It’s not nearly as big a problem today, of course—thanks to the cell phone, you can always sneak away from the cubicle for five minutes to make a quick call about that happy hour tonight. Instead, the personal call has been replaced on your boss’s list of don’ts by Internet communication—e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook, MySpace. It might seem easier to get away with a quick personal e-mail while you’re on the clock. After all, you’re sitting at your desk, typing away, looking diligent to the casual observer. But unlike the personal call, that e-mail—whether it’s about what you’re doing for dinner, how much you hate your boss, or that stubborn rash on your foot—might be read, and saved, by company employees monitoring how employees use their computers.

In the fall of 2005, Andrew Krucoff was a blogger and a lowly employee at Conde Nast, which publishes Vanity Fair, Vogue, Wired, and other prestigious magazines. He killed time occasionally by sending Conde Nast-related gossip to Gawker, a snarky media-industry blog. But after Krucoff forwarded Gawker editors an exceptionally dull memo from Conde Nast about Internet connectivity issues, he was fired. Conde Nast had been trying to shut down leaks to Gawker and other blogs, and when Krucoff mistakenly used his work account instead of his personal e-mail, they nabbed him. The memo might not have contained any corporate secrets—what company hasn’t had the occasional Internet hiccup?—but Krucoff was fired soon after for the leak.

Counting keystrokes

Getting fired for forwarding a company memo is obviously an extreme example of the consequences of using your work computer, e-mail, and Internet for personal reasons. But Krucoff is far from the only person to get canned for abusing e-mail: In February, the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute released the 2007 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey, which found that 28 percent of employers have fired workers for abusing e-mail. Thirty percent have fired employees for Internet misuse. The reasons given for canning Internet and e-mail users included breaching company policy, breaking confidentiality, accessing inappropriate content, excessive personal use, and more. “Computer monitoring takes many forms, with 45% of employers tracking content, keystrokes, and time spent at the keyboard. Another 43% store and review computer files,” the survey notes.

Technology-wise, companies are capable of reading almost all of your communications, including IMs sent with AOL Instant Messenger or Windows Messenger and e-mails sent from free services like Gmail and Hotmail. Many companies monitor their employees’ communications sparingly—after all, it costs a lot of money to pay people to read this stuff. Frankly, the company doesn’t care if you and your mother have a sometimes-strained e-mail relationship. Usually, they just want to be sure that your virtual personal life isn’t interfering with the quality of your work. But companies have widely differing definitions of what, exactly, constitutes too many personal e-mails. In 2006, PC World reported that an employee of the Washington State Department of Labor was fired for sending about five personal e-mails a day over the course of five months.

Often, employee-imposed limits on Internet and e-mail use are meant to prevent potential security problems, like viruses that could affect the entire company network. Some companies try to keep employees from hanging themselves by removing the rope: 65 percent of employers use some kind of blocking software to filter Internet access, according to the Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey. “Employers who block access to the Web are concerned about employees visiting adult sites with sexual, romantic, or pornographic content (96%); game sites (61%); social networking sites (50%); entertainment sites (40%); shopping/auction sites (27%); and sports sites (21%). In addition, companies use URL blocks to stop employees from visiting external blogs (18%),” the survey says. My boyfriend once temped at a company that blocked all access to Hotmail, Gmail, and other free Internet-based e-mail sites.

Blogging about your workplace? Never!

Blogs are another common source of problems for employers. Companies frequently ban their employees from blogging altogether or require that employees with blogs disclose them to HR. Whatever you do, avoid blogging about your workplace. In 2005, a Ladies Home Journal assistant editor was fired after it came to her employers’ attention that she was the anonymous writer of the beauty blog “Jolie in NYC.” Instant messages are a little less risky. The 2006 (the most recent year available) Workplace E-mail, Instant Messaging, & Blog Survey from the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute found that “only 31% of organizations have IM policy in place, and 13% retain IM business records.” But as IMs increasingly enter the workplace, that will probably begin to change.

The good news is that most employers strive to be transparent about what, exactly, they expect and prohibit in their workers’ online lives. The smartest thing you can do is ask your supervisor or HR representative to send you a copy of the company’s technology policy. You likely received (and signed!) a copy of this document when you began working at the company, but these policies are updated frequently—and, if you’re anything like me, the information you received on your first day is something of a blur. Before you send another gossipy IM or buy a book on job searching from, you should know how the company technology policy applies to you. Does your company archive all outgoing e-mails? Do they read them regularly? Do they reserve the right to read communications at all times, or only if you’ve done something to warrant an investigation? Do they log your Web surfing history? Knowing whether it’s kosher for you to check your e-mail, shop for some new shoes, or keep a blog might just save your job.

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