Assume your boss can monitor any company-owned computer, PDA, or phone – and act on what they find. Deleted emails and computer files are not completely gone. If it was ever on your computer, it can still be found.

They may find out personal things that it’s just not good for a boss to know. Or, they may take advantage of being able to spy on workers.

Your boss can monitor:

  • Internet use
  • Software downloads
  • Documents or files stored on your computer
  • What websites you visit and how long you stay
  • Anything that is displayed on your computer screen
  • How long you’re on your computer
  • How fast you type
  • If you type any key words from a list
  • E-mails (that you get or send). Emails can be read or automatically screened for certain words. Even if you are using a private email system on a work computer, those emails could be read.
  • Instant messaging and chatting

Bosses say they monitor their employees’ computer because they’re worried about:

  • workers wasting time
  • bandwidth use (when large files are downloaded)
  • exposing their computer systems to viruses
  • making sure that employees do not share secret company information
  • making sure employees don’t send emails that harass another worker, prove discrimination, or could be a problem in a lawsuit

Computer monitoring is not the best way to make sure your employees are doing good work -- good managers look at the quality of work and how much workers are producing.

Protect Yourself

For most workers, you're better of if you never have a problem because there's nothing that would be a problem for your employer to find on your work computer.

It is better to use a personal email account (like Gmail or yahoo), instead of a work email, but that doesn’t give you total protection – there are ways to monitor your private emails sent from a work computer. Even with a separate account, there can also be problems if your boss monitors how much time employees spend on the internet and which sites.

Find out about any policies (in the handbook or elsewhere):

  • when they monitor workers
  • what kind of monitoring they do
  • how data from the monitoring is used
  • rules about personal use of company equipment

Don't assume they're following their own rules. Even without a policy, or no matter what the policy says, your boss may be monitoring your computer.

They can monitor your private computer use – even if they say that certain personal use is permitted.

Without union protection, they can change any rule at any time, and fire you even if you’re following their rules.

Even if your employer doesn’t monitor your email, don’t forget that emails can still be subpoenaed during a law suit.

What protections do workers have?

It’s hard say whether any particular worker has protection from monitoring in a specific situation because courts make different decisions in different areas. Some of the things that courts consider include:

  • if they had a good business reason for looking in workers' computer files;
  • if there’s a policy or workers were told they were being monitored;
  • if workers can show they expected privacy on the computer (for example, you password protected your files).

Despite the name, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) usually does not stop bosses from reading your, um, electronic communications – email, instant messaging, etc. For most workers, it only covers listening to workers’ private conversations. It doesn’t cover situations when the company owns the computer, phone, GPS, or provides the internet access which it is monitoring.

Some union contracts or state laws may limit an employer's ability to monitor your computer activity. 

Workers that have additional protection

If you have a union, you have more protection. Unions can negotiate over monitoring, how the information from monitoring is used, and access to data (which can help make sure everyone is treated the same). Union workers always have the right to fight a discipline or firing, including the information it’s based on.

You may have some protection if you are communicating with your coworkers about work conditions, under laws that protect an employee's ability to engage in concerted activity. If you have been fired or disciplined for complaining about your working conditions to other coworkers using e-mail, or for using your work computer for union organizing activities,

If you are fired for writing emails about something at work that’s illegal (discrimination, breaking wage laws, etc) that you’re trying to stop, you may have protection under anti-retaliation or whistleblower laws.

The law:
Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C.§2511