Your Privacy - What is Your Employer Accessing?

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Your Privacy - What is Your Employer Accessing?

April 01, 2013

A recent report by the Boston Globe has reignited the debate of how much access an employer has over the information employees keep on company property such as computers. The report revolves around Harvard University central administrators secretly searching the e-mail accounts of 16 resident deans. Large organizations such as Harvard generally have policies in place that state how much they can intrude on company equipment used by staff. Employees are required to read and sign these policies before they’re hired, so they will have a clear understanding of what kind of privacy to expect from the organization they work for.

The protection employers have regarding the monitoring of an employee’s computer is based on the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. This act exempts service providers from a prohibition against intercepting private communications, including e-mail. Employers are seen as service providers under the law because they provide Internet access and they own the equipment. And anything they own is theirs, so they have the right to monitor how employees use what they own.

Employers want to monitor the activities of their employees because surveys have concluded many man-hours are lost using company equipment for personal use. Some of the numbers include:

  • 30 percent of companies lose a workday per week to Internet usage
  • 30 to 40 percent of Internet access is used for non-work related browsing
  • 57 percent of businesses did not know what their employees did online
  •  60 percent of all online purchases are made during working hours
  • 67 percent admitted using the Internet for personal reasons
  • 70 percent of all Internet adult traffic takes place from nine-to-five on workdays

The introduction of new policies such as bring-your-own-device (BYOD) will undoubtedly introduce new wrinkles regarding employee privacy. In the past employers argued that they have certain rights in accessing employee information as long as company equipment was being used. But what happens when the device is the property of the employee containing information belonging to the employer? This will probably result in many future lawsuits requiring new laws to address the employer/employee relationship.

In adopting BYOD policies, companies will be implementing Mobile Device Management (MDM) software to protect their assets on the device the employee is using. This software gives the employer the ability to monitor the device with data wipe and device inventory capabilities. So the question becomes how much access will the employer have to your private information on your own device? The answer to these questions is usually answered when a lawsuit is brought against an employer that has breached their boundaries.

Employers and employees can protect each other by putting policies in place in which both parties have a clear understanding of what they can expect from each other. If your privacy is important to you, make sure you understand how federal and state laws protect your privacy while you are working.

The best way to avoid issues of privacy is by encouraging employees to keep private correspondence on home computers or personal devices not linked with the company.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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