For the vast majority of us, spending a significant portion of our work day in front of a computer screen is rooted in our daily lives. The profound advances in technology has opened up opportunities unimaginable twenty years ago—not only do we perform work on our computers, but we have the luxury of browsing the internet, shopping online, and talking to our friends and family through various technology companies. As constant purveyors of the internet, most of us are guilty from deviating from our work-related projects, and browsing our favorite websites or checking our personal e-mails on our work computers. What many employees don’t know, however, is that their privacy when using a work computer is very limited. How limited?
According to the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, an employer-provided computer system is the property of the employer. This means that an employee waives their reasonable expectation of privacy when using a work computer and thus, an employer can essentially monitor everything on that computer, including Internet usage. This is especially true if an employer states in their policies that electronic communications are to be used strictly for work-related matters, and that the employer reserves the right to monitor or access all employee Internet or e-mail usage. Most employers provide a similar version of this policy in their employee handbook, which they then require the employee to sign. Most Courts have found that just by providing this signature, an employee is waiving their expectation of privacy in the workplace. Ultimately, if the equipment belongs to the employer, the employer has the right to monitor activity on it.
Once an employee’s expectation of privacy is waived, the employer has tremendous leeway regarding how much and how often they can monitor the employee’s work computer. For example, employers can monitor any e-mails sent by an employee using an employer’s email system. Employers can use computer software that enables them to see what is on an employee’s screen or stored in the employee’s hard disks. Employers can also monitor Internet usage, software downloads, anything displayed on a computer screen including personal documents, and, even, how long a computer has been idle. What’s more, employers may utilize “keystroke monitoring” which tells them how many keystrokes per hour an employee is performing.
Given the weight of law favoring the employer when it comes to workplace privacy, employees should take precautions before browsing the internet, sending e-mails to third parties, or saving personal documents on the computer. Although employers more often monitor productivity in the workplace while the employee is still employed, they can also utilize their rights after the employee leaves the workplace. This issue becomes especially contentious in the event of litigation. Employees who bring lawsuits against their employers risk the very high chance that all of the activity that occurred on a computer owned by the employer—work-related or not—will be discovered in litigation.
If you are concerned about privacy in the workplace, you should consult an experienced employment attorney to figure out your legal rights and options.