Stop Facebook from Spying on You...: And Other Ways to Protect Your Online Privacy (2015)
Protect Your Privacy at Work
They can read our e-mails, listen to our phone calls, watch us through hidden cameras, track our movements and monitor our Facebook pages—all legally. They are not federal agents from the National Security Agency—they are our employers.
Few Americans are aware that their bosses have wide-ranging rights to look into their lives. The rapidly dropping cost of high-tech surveillance equipment, including digital cameras and GPS technology, has made such prying increasingly common.
Your E-mail and Text Messages
Any e-mail sent through your employer’s computer network can be read by your boss—including not only messages in your work e-mail account but also messages in your personal e-mail accounts if you use your employer’s network to send or receive them. This includes messages on your own personal laptop, tablet computer or smartphone.
The e-mails most likely to be examined are those containing words that often are used in a sexual context. Many employers use computer programs that call such messages to their attention so that they can stop workplace sexual harassment before it leads to a lawsuit. But the same keywords that appear in sexual harassment e-mails also can turn up in very private messages between sexual partners or in messages about sensitive medical matters.
Employers have a right to read text and e-mail messages sent from company-owned cell phones, smartphones and laptops, too, even if those messages are sent through personal e-mail accounts from outside the workplace. Employers can’t easily monitor such messages as they are sent, but they can be uncovered later when the device is returned to the IT department for repairs or upgrade.
What to do: If you must send a private e-mail or text from the workplace, do so through your own mobile computer or cell phone…and if this device is capable of operating over both Wi-Fi and a cellular network, confirm that it currently is accessing the cellular network, not company Wi-Fi. If you must use a company cell phone to send a private message, opt for calling the person rather than texting or e-mailing. That makes it much less likely that the company will learn the content of the message, though the company could determine what person or place you called.
Your Online Activity
Most employees realize that their employers can monitor their Internet use when they’re in the office. And most job applicants understand that many potential employers now evaluate applicants’ Facebook pages, blogs and other Internet postings. But some employers go even further, monitoring Internet content by and about their current employees—and occasionally firing those whose personal lives or opinions the employer considers offensive or unprofessional.
Examples: Employees have been fired for posting pictures of themselves holding a beer at a party…or wearing a bikini on a beach while on vacation. One employee was fired for expressing opinions about the Iraq war that ran counter to his employer’s views.
In most states, an employer can legally fire an employee for nearly any reason, aside from reasons that are specifically prohibited by federal law (such as race, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability)…by collective bargaining agreements…or by civil service protections for government employees. Apart from laws prohibiting employers from firing employees for smoking, only California, Colorado, Montana, New York and North Dakota have laws restricting the ability of employers to fire employees for legal off-duty activities and statements.
Employers even can require employees to provide their social-media passwords to facilitate their snooping, though some states have begun passing laws to prohibit this.
What to do: Do not post anything online that you would not be comfortable saying or doing in the office. Discourage your friends and relatives from posting pictures of you doing these things as well. Even if your current employer does not monitor your online life, there’s a good chance that it will be examined the next time you apply for a job.
Tracking Your Movements
If you have a company car or company cell phone, your employer could be tracking your movements—even during your free time.
It’s common and reasonable for employers to install GPS in company vehicles to make sure that their salespeople and delivery people are where they’re supposed to be during the workday. But nothing legally prevents employers from also tracking company vehicles during nonworking hours to learn where employees go in their spare time.
Modern cell phones have GPS capabilities, too. For as little as $5 per phone per month, an employer can obtain a service that will use this GPS to track employees’ movements.
A company might monitor how late an employee stays out on weekends, how often he/she visits bars or whether he’s having an affair with a coworker.
What to do: If you don’t want your employer to know about your activities outside the office, leave your company car at home or at least park it several blocks from destinations that you hope to keep private. Leave the company cell phone home.
Cameras, Laptops, Phones
Some of the following types of snooping are not as common, but it may just be a matter of time before they catch on with employers…
Digital video camera surveillance. Although the cameras are present in many workplaces as security devices, employees often don’t realize that they’re being observed or recorded. These aren’t the obvious security cameras of old—a modern digital camera can be easily concealed. Courts generally have ruled that employers have the right to record video of their workers and workplaces, though usually not in employee bathrooms or locker rooms.
Example: The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that an employer was within his rights to take videos of a female employee who regularly changed into gym clothes in her cubicle after everyone else had left for the day.
Laptop surveillance. If you have a company laptop, your employer—or a rogue employee in your employer’s IT department—could activate that laptop’s Webcam and spy on you, possibly with no obvious sign that the camera is active. We don’t yet have evidence of an employer doing this, but it was done with laptops issued to students by a Pennsylvania high school.
Audio surveillance. In most states, employers can place hidden audio recording devices in their workplaces, too, though a state law might require them to disclose to employees that they have done so.
These listening devices generally must be confined to parts of the workplace where conversations are predominantly work-related, so they typically can’t be used in cafeterias, break rooms or bathrooms.
Companies can and do monitor and record employee phone conversations, however. By federal law, they must disclose that calls are being recorded. Federal laws also require them to stop listening if it becomes clear that a call is not work-related—but don’t count on this rule to protect your privacy.
Employees can’t know for sure that their employers are hanging up on personal calls, and employees legally can be disciplined if the call violates employer restrictions limiting personal use of the phone.
Companies legally can monitor calls made on company-owned cell phones as well, but in practice, this is difficult for them to do.
What to do: Do not do anything in your workplace that you would not want your employer to see, even if no one else is around. If you must do something private in the workplace, the bathroom or locker room is the spot least likely to be under observation. Do not say anything on an office phone that you wouldn’t want your employer to hear. If you must make a private call, do so from a cell phone—ideally your personal cell phone. If you have a company laptop, turn it off or at least close it when it’s not in use. If you never use your company laptop’s Webcam, cover it with a piece of tape.
Expert Source: Lewis Maltby, JD, president, National Workrights Institute, a not-for-profit organization that researches and advocates on issues related to employee rights. Maltby previously served as general counsel of Drexelbrook Engineering Company and as director of employment rights with the American Civil Liberties Union. He has testified before Congress on employment issues. www.Workrights.us