How to protect your privacy on your work computer

Whether it's responding to your child’s teacher, or straightening out an issue with the bank, most people sometimes need to answer a personal email during office hours. While that fact that when we're at work many of us are sitting in front of a computer makes that easy, that computer on your desk is intended for work purposes, as is the provided internet access, and not for the recreational use of the employee during the work hours. Increasingly companies are monitoring employees use of email, the internet and phones, and using increasingly sophisticated tools to do so.

While answering that important email during business hours is unlikely to result in an immediate firing at most companies, it does raise quite a few issues. Are you violating your company’s policy? Are you being watched? Could your employer obtain your account credentials and use them to track your email account even when you're not at work?

All of these issues make it more difficult to maintain privacy, and similar concerns pertain to work-issued smartphones too, with the lines blurred even more in the case of a BYOD with a company’s app installed. So here are our tips for making sure you protect your privacy, and don't fall foul of your employer.

1. Read the manual

A good first step is to review your company’s internet usage policy – here's a sample template document from the American Bar Association that's fairly typical of many workplaces. These policies generally include some verbiage about how computers and internet access are provided for work purposes, then go on to state that work PCs should not be used for illegal or pornographic purposes, or to engage in offensive activities, whether racial, sexual or otherwise.

They're likely to further state that “computer, internet and email usage may be monitored by the company, including retrieving and reading e-mail messages and other computer files, and monitoring of Internet traffic,” and will then point out that, despite you having your own password for company systems, there is “no expectation of privacy”.

When starting a new job employees are often required to sign a whole pile of documents, and we suspect that few pay much attention to, or even recall, the bits about limitations on their privacy.

2. Stay off the net

The best way to avoid a privacy breach at work, given the above, is to simply not use your employer’s computer for anything other than company work. This makes it quite simple, although not always practical, to maintain a separation between work and home email and other accounts.

An obvious solution to bring a separate device to work for personal communication. Most of us have our smartphones with us all of the time, and sending emails and phone calls over the cellular 4G network, while not always 100% private, does at least enable you to bypass your work computer and network.

Some workplaces also have free Wi-Fi access, whether intended for visitors or for the convenience of employees. Be sure to check the policy on this free access, though, as it may also be monitored as above. To be on the safe side use your phone's data connection, and if you want to use a tablet or laptop tether it to your phone (make sure your plan offers sufficient data).

3. Cat and mouse

With robust software solutions, such as Time Doctor and ActiveTrak, employers can easily monitor their employees over all types of activities, and in an automated fashion. This can include grabbing screenshots, tracking keywords, keystroke loggers, webcam video feeds, and time trackers. While it's a little bit creepy to think about your employer as Big Brother, such practices can offer the potential to reduce workplace violence or sexual harassment when put to good use.

Depending on the location of the employee, they do have certain protections, and have additional rights. In the US for example it's generally illegal for employers to intercept private emails or instant messages sent over web-based service providers if your personal password is required to gain access, although this protection is limited. Employers may be able to view any email stored on company computers, track keystrokes, and log websites visited; deleting and email won't help, as a copy will be saved on the employer’s server.

Given that your employer likely has a fair bit of leeway when it comes to monitoring you, we go back to recommending that employees use their own device at work, and that the communications go through a network other than the employer’s network.

4. Outsource the info

Another strategy is to not store documents on your employer’s computer, other than work-related ones. In the case of personal documents, which could be screen-captured or otherwise monitored, it's better to keep them on an external drive, although due to the security risks employers are increasingly disabling the USB ports on work computers due to known vulnerabilities. If you do have access to a USB port, then an external drive such as a flash drive is a sensible place for your data.

a collection of flash drives

Taking this a step further, a flash drive can be used to run a portable browser, such as Google Chrome Portable or Firefox Portable. While this won't protect you from keylogger and screenshot monitoring, it does mean you won't up the browser’s web cache on the company’s laptop with personal info. Opera Portable, meanwhile, has an integrated VPN to keep your traffic secure – although while this might seem a good solution, as it encrypts the communication, it doesn't provide privacy from  keylogger and screenshot monitoring, and running a VPN on a work network is most likely in violation of your company’s security policy.

In the final analysis, there's really no guarantee of privacy at work, especially when you're using a company computer. The best practice is to use the company computer for work only, and segregate your personal data and communications through a non-company device, on a non-company network.

Securing your digital lifestyle doesn’t have to be a tedious or expensive process. You can achieve that in the next 60 seconds by downloading a trial of CyberGhost VPN here, risk-free.

Jonas P. DeMuro

Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.