Do Employers Monitor Your Computer Usage at Work?

Im being watched

Employers monitoring the computer and internet usage of employees is a controversial subject. Employees feel uncomfortable and worry that their privacy is being violated, while employers believe they have the right to monitor whatever they wish in the workplace.


In the United States, the practice is legal and quite widespread. A 2015 survey from the American Management Association found that at least 66 percent of U.S. companies monitor employee internet use, 45 percent log keystrokes, and 43 percent track employee e-mails.


The systems and software employers use to monitor activity may be new, but the practice itself is not. Henry Ford was known to walk the factory floor with a stop watch in hand. He would time how long it took employees to perform their job tasks.


As technology has evolved, monitoring employees has become both easier and less expensive. By and large, it is no longer a questions of whether you are being monitored at all, but rather what is being monitored, how is it being monitored, and why is it being monitored.


The What


What can an employer monitor? The short answer is: everything. Connecting to a company network enables the company to log just about everything a typical employee does at his or her desk: internet surfing, e-mails sent and received, stored files, computer applications usage, IM chats, and so forth. Your personal data is not excluded. Employers can monitor your personal chat activities, calls, and e-mails.


The ability to monitor an employee's private conduct, however, dictates that data protection laws apply. Employers are generally prohibited from disclosing any such information to a third-party entity and will usually do so only if a crime is being committed, or if they are protecting their business, resources and reputation.


The How


The most convenient and practical manner to monitor employee activities is via the company's internet gateway. This allows the logging and easy evaluation of all internet activities, including searches, websites visited, e-mail messages sent and received, and, of course, files downloaded.


Such monitoring is even cost effective, as there are plenty of free "snoopware" packages available. One possible downside to this method is that it is difficult for companies to track local off-line usage.


Current workstation monitoring software packages are very effective at logging every keystroke you do. Although not necessary, a common practice is to install software on employee computers.


Most software programs also now store info about a user's activities, even if the computer is not connected to a company network. Once the computer is reconnected to the network, all previous activities automatically log back and are readily viewable for whoever is watching.


The Why


If you are an employee who absent-mindedly surfs the internet and handles personal e-mails at work (and we all are), then you should be feeling somewhat uneasy. While the motivation for monitoring employees differs among companies, such activity occurs primarily for four reasons:


Monitoring employees woman with tablet

Measuring productivity is actually the least common reason given for monitoring. Because many employers do like to know the productivity and performance of each employee, managers and HR are the main consumers for this type of data.


They need to track how much time employees spend doing non-work-related activities such as using social networking websites or applications, downloading and playing games, sending personal e-mail messages, online shopping, and reading news.


These activities, while they may provide a quick break, can become major time-wasters. While most employers do understand — and accept — that a reasonable degree of "non-work" activities will take place, over-use can quickly land an employee in hot water.


Policy compliance is a more common reason to monitor employees. Companies track employees' activities to ensure their compliance with existing policies. Company policies may restrict access to specific websites such as social networking ones while at workplace.


The restriction of downloading specific files such as gaming files on company's computers is important to prevent malware infiltration. In all cases, a company's internet and computer usage policy should be clearly defined and effectively communicated to all employees when they are hired, and then again on a regular basis as a "gentle" reminder.


Statistics are essential data for network engineers. They love to collect statistics about network traffic and they continuously monitor to gather data for analysis. A common practice is to give priority to mission critical traffic over other non-important traffic.


Accurate monitoring of internet traffic enables employers to efficiently utilize and optimize the impact of internet connections. For example, e-mail traffic in a production factory is more important than social networking traffic. In the case of a marketing agency, social networking interaction is more vital.


Security, or the protection of sensitive data, is the Number One reason companies give for monitoring employees. Keeping an eye on internet activities enables a company to detect activates that may expose the network to malware.


It also ensures employees don't visit inappropriate and potentially unsafe websites such as those specializing in adult entertainment, gaming, and social networking. These sites often can enable bad actors to track users and profiles to gain access to the network.


Companies increasingly use active monitoring systems rather than passive ones for security. These systems can prevent unauthorized activities and information leak.


One example of such active monitoring is blocking an e-mail message from being received from outside the company if the monitoring system detects that it contains sensitive data. Another example is blocking access to a gaming website that has been classified as containing malicious software.


In addition to protecting company systems from security threats and information leaks, employers also monitor employee activities to investigate fraud cases and better understand how they occurred. For example, a review of e-mail activities could reveal how a company marketing campaign was leaked to a competitor.


What Should You Do Next?


Employee monitoring is ever more common. In most cases, it's an overall statistical monitoring rather than personal monitoring. Specific user monitoring is usually done only when a major misuse is identified, to ensure employee compliance with company policy.


Knowing that you are being monitored at work shouldn't overly scare you. Rather, it should encourage you to follow best practices to ensure your personal privacy and protect company assets. You should know and comply with your company's usage policies always.


Also, keep your personal life separate from the workplace to ensure your own individual data privacy. Use your business e-mail for business-related messages only. Employers are monitoring employees for efficient and effective management of company's resources. As an employee, it is your responsibility to help ensure that efficiency and effectiveness.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Ahmed Badr

Ahmed Badr is a network consultant with more than 10 years of experience designing, implementing and operating large scale network infrastructures. He holds a BSc in Communications and one in Electronics Engineering, and a Master of Business Administration. He also holds a CCIE certificate in Routing and Switching since 2008. Ahmed can be contacted at: