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ActivTrak review

Monitoring metrics

(Image: © ActivTrak)

Our Verdict

A tracking tool that takes one step back from wholesale spyware while still providing critical performance metrics about the use of company systems. That’s an easier sell to employees, but does it tell you enough about what they are doing?

For

  • User privacy features
  • Google security
  • Inexpensive

Against

  • No keylogging
  • No mobile device tracking
  • No screen OCR

This American based business started life as two guys and a laptop, and a tracking solution that was purely LAN based. ActivTrak has evolved into a Cloud-based solution for those wishing to understand more about their business, employees and processes.

If you don’t wish to abuse the privacy of staff but need to get a greater insight into their working day, then ActivTrak might be the right solution for you.

Features

Surveillance software can focus on two different aspects of computer use. One assumes the worst of staff and aims to treat them as hostile components. And, the other is that tracking workers can provide an insight into working processes and reveal untapped efficiency gains.

ActivTrak takes the more positive position that tracking enables a better understanding of what people are doing with their time, and therefore with greater knowledge comes the possibility of changing these practices and enhancing the workflow to enhance productivity.

Therefore, this is surveillance with a lighter touch and not a classic spyware product.

The core functionality of ActivTrak is a tracking agent that feeds a database of employee activity, and from that data, it can identify those staff who aren’t as productive or who are using their computers for private purposes.

It can also flag security issues, such as copying files to USB devices and capture screen images of questionable activity for later review.

Doing this when an employee is using private email could be a legal issue in some regions, but an option exists to blur captured images. Therefore, it can be ascertained that they were using Gmail or Yahoo, but not what was conveyed.

This approach supports HIPAA and COPPA compliance, although it costs extra to have redaction on the account.

We also noticed that ActivTrak incorporates one of the few screen capture systems that can snag 3D accelerated apps like games and some CAD systems, and that’s a very useful ability.

The start point for most administrators is to see what websites users are spending time on and if these correspond to their work needs.

Based on what the agents discover, websites can be blocked, and alarms created to provide warning of suspicious behaviour.

ActivTrak is one of the few systems that can send a popup to the user telling them what they’ve done wrong, rather than noting their errant behaviour and not educating them further.

One slight annoyance is that websites can be either blocked or not. It has no option that would allow Facebook to be used at lunchtime or out of office hours.

In some regions, like France, some private use is the right of all workers, and therefore this system wouldn’t fit with those laws.

(Image credit: ActivTrak)

What ActivTrak also doesn’t offer is keylogging, although the screen capture mechanism could be as effective in certain circumstances.

The agent works on Windows, macOS, Chrome OS and on a Chrome browser that could be running on a wide range of Linux distros.

A mobile application is available for iOS and Android, but this merely provides access to the captured web data and doesn’t operate as an agent on those devices. 

Based on the way a question about phone functionality is answered on the ActivTrak FAQ, it seems likely that a mobile agent is in development.

The strengths of this solution are that it provides a means to track user activity in real-time and potentially shut down anything problematic before it becomes a bigger issue.

(Image credit: ActivTrak)

Those interesting a bigger data collection exercises can pay extra to have raw data access to the SQL database where the data is held, and then run independent analytics or analysis on it.

Some features, like USB detection and file tracking, are limited to the premium package, so it would be worth checking that the feature you need is included before signing up.

(Image credit: ActivTrak)

Interface

The interface of this tool is much like others that use a web portal. It’s relatively easy to learn as everything is logically organised, making the learning curve a gentle one for new users. 

To maximise the amount of space for viewing contents, the menu slides out when you travel over a thin strip of icons on the left.

If accidentally triggering this annoys you, it is possible to pin the menu in an expanded form, although doing so makes the data viewing area smaller.

Some data can be presented in modified ways, screenshots can be in tile view or thumbnails, although the interface doesn’t allow for much greater customisation.

Where this product gets a little more complicated is in respect of raw data access, where some experience with report writing and SQL would be a necessity. 

And, some planning and knowledge would be advantageous when first configuring the system, so that the admins aren’t overloaded with alerts about things that aren’t a problem, amongst other things.

ActivTrak has support staff that can help in that respect, and also address any technical issues promptly, should they arise.

(Image credit: ActivTrak)

Security

The main methodology that ActivTrak uses to verify those using the system is to piggyback on the Google authorisation system, a choice that inherently adds two-factor authorisation if this feature is active on the Google account.

You can use a name and password, but that lacks the extra verification that a Google account offers for those with a Google ID.

If the security model of ActivTrak has a weakness, it’s the lack of granularity in the administration security. All those with access have either the full powers of an administrator of the lesser capabilities of general users.

General users get a limited Dashboard devoid of all the controls and settings, and they have predefined access to specific user groups. More layers to this heirarchy would be preferable, we contest.

There isn’t a means to create a role-based function for those using the system where an admin can click features on and off as required, and one would be useful.

What the system does offer is an audit trail to all activity at the Dashboard, and it is possible to create email or webhook alarms should specific conditions be detected in the audit log.

One slightly odd thing about ActivTrak is how it classifies users, and then associates activity against them.

In most solutions only one version of a user exists, irrespective of what computer they are on, and what activity is logged. In ActivTrak users are appear multiple times if they use a computer and a Chromebook, and if sales all use one Chrome ID, they’ll be seen as a single Chrome user, but multiple logins.

Overall, ActivTrak doesn’t offer the most secure solution. But it does enough to be compliant with HIPAA and COPPA, critically.

(Image credit: ActivTrak)

Plans and pricing

For those wishing to experience ActivTrak, a free to install version can be found of its website that can track three users with some basic functionality.

What isn’t included in the free plan is USB detection or file transfer tracking, and it also lacks a host of risk scoring and screenshot functionality.

These features are only available in the paid plan, costing $7.20 per user per month with an annual contract. A monthly plan is available, but costs more per user and lacks active Screenshot Redaction, Screenshot Flagging, and Video Playback Add-ons.

There are licensing deals for 20, 50 and 100+ users, and the unit cost can come down to as low as $2 per user month at the higher levels.

The pricing is much cheaper than many tracking tools, and possibly one of the most affordable options available.

Final verdict

The single thing that impressed us most about the company behind this product was that it discusses openly on its website the downsides of deploying surveillance software and the legal pitfalls.

This level of openness is a breath of fresh air. Because many vendors appear to think that whatever diabolical scheme their software is used is entirely up to the licensee, and not its responsibility.

ActivTrak argues that how employees react to being tracked is a perception issue and that it should be represented as a mechanism for everyone to work better together.

Because this solution doesn’t include a key capture mechanism allows some wiggle room for staff acceptance, as it avoids the worst aspect of spyware.

What ActivTrak tries to do is walk a fine line between providing an insight into staff and how they use their computers and the level of surveillance that the incarcerated experience.

When these tools are used appropriately, then they make staff more productive and more engaged in what they are paid to do, in theory.

And, by not including a keylogger and other very invasive technology, ActivTrak is trying hard to keep its customers from alienating staff while controlling computer use effectively.

The lack of a keylogger or phone agent will probably put off some businesses, but then those are the ones that aren’t likely to share the values that ActivTrak are promoting with its products.