The Boss Has New Tech to Spy on You

Monday Apr 2nd 2007 by Cynthia Harvey
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When your boss calls and asks where you are, he or she may already know the answer.

Think no one knows what you do at work? Think again. New technology makes it easy for your boss to track your every move, and more employers install surveillance equipment every year.

According to the National Workrights Institute, 67 percent of employers electronically monitored their employees in 1999. By 2001, that number jumped to 78 percent. And by 2003, a full 92 percent of employers admitted to conducting some sort of electronic monitoring.

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What are they watching? A 2005 American Management Association survey found that 76 percent of employers monitor which Web sites their employees visit. Over half (55 percent) store and review e-mail messages, and half check employees' computer files. And about one-third of employers track content, keystrokes, and time spent at the computer.

While tracking computer use is the most prevalent type of surveillance, a growing number of companies also monitor their employees away from their PCs. Again according to the AMA, 51 percent of companies had some sort of video surveillance installed in 2005—up from 33 percent in 2001. And 10 percent of employers install cameras specifically to track job performance.

Today's surveillance systems are both more sophisticated and less expensive, making it easier for bosses to see what you do on the clock. And some don't stop there—your boss may also be able to track what you do on your personal time.

Video Goes Digital

When you think of video surveillance, do you imagine a dark room full of uniformed security personnel monitoring a wall of full of closed-circuit TV (CCTV) screens—a stack of VCRs blinking nearby? Once the norm, those setups are quickly disappearing. In their place are new IP cameras, digital video recorders (DVRs), and network video recorders (NVRs).

Unlike CCTV, IP systems take digital pictures and connect to the computer network. This offers a host of benefits including improved picture quality, off-site monitoring, and lower power requirements. Keith Drummond, CEO of surveillance vendor LenSec observes, "The trend among buyers has been to move away from analog CCTV systems to IP-based systems. The reason is that [buyers] are now requiring increased features and functionality, such as Power over Ethernet, wireless, mega pixel, audio, motion detection, and enterprise-wide management in their video surveillance system."

According Joe Freeman of security firm J.P. Freeman, while only 20 percent of the cameras sold in 2006 were IP cameras, manufacturers expect that within five years that number will rise to 60 percent. As IP systems become the norm, the price is declining rapidly.

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While high-end IP cameras can cost $3,000 or more, the WiLife LukWerks Digital Video Surveillance System sells starter kits to small businesses for as little as $300. With these systems, companies simply plug in the camera and install the software. Supervisors can then monitor what happens at the office from any Internet connection—even their cell phones.

Digital technology is also transforming the way video is stored and retrieved. Instead of searching forwards and backwards through VCR tapes, supervisors and security personnel can call up any point in time instantly from the DVR or NVR.

"Intelligent" cameras can be programmed to analyze and respond to a variety of situations. On the most basic level, this can mean recording only when a motion detector is set off. Other more advanced systems link video images to the cash register tape for theft prevention. And on the cutting edge, Panoptic Systems claims to be only 10 months away from using input from multiple cameras to create a 3-D view of every person throughout a facility.

Off-the-job Monitoring

As the lines blur between work and home life, so do the lines between what is and isn't acceptable for employers to monitor. The National Workrights Institute Reports that 20 million people work from home at least one day a month. "When this occurs, people's home computers are subject to monitoring by their employer. Workplace computer monitoring systems monitor the entire network, including a home computer that is temporarily part of the network."

That means the Web sites you visit, e-mails you send, and documents you save while connected to the corporate network not only can be tracked by your employer—they probably are.

The new range of GPS-enabled devices gives employers another window into their employee's activities. In the latest AMA survey, 5 percent of companies used GPS to track cell phones, 8 percent used GPS to track company cars, and 8 percent used GPS to track employee ID or Smartcards. And in most cases, companies aren't required to tell you if they use GPS to track your location.

In other words, when your boss calls and asks where you are, he or she may already know the answer.

What Can You Do?

When it comes to employee surveillance, the law almost always sides with the employer. Even in some of the most shocking cases, such as video cameras in bathroom stalls or locker rooms, the courts sometimes find that employers are within their rights. In part, that's because there really aren't that many laws restricting what employers can do.

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Two federal laws govern employer spying on employees. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 says that companies cannot eavesdrop on personal calls unless the employee consents. However, employers can monitor business-related calls without notifying their workers.

The recently passed Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006 addresses the concerns raised by the recent scandal at HP and specifically outlaws the use of pretexting to gain access to employees' home phone records. California outlaws cameras in bathrooms and locker rooms, and Connecticut and Delaware require employers to provide notice of video monitoring. Other than that, employers are largely free to monitor anything that happens using their equipment.

What can you do to protect your privacy at work?

1. Be aware. Read any office policies on privacy and workplace monitoring before you throw them in your desk drawer. If something isn't clear, ask. And remember that in most cases, the law doesn't require employers to tell you if they are watching.

2. Assume you are being watched. If you wouldn't want your boss to know you were visiting that site or making that call, save it for home. And to be safe, change your clothes at the gym, not in your cubicle.

3. Disconnect when you can. Don't leave your home computer hooked up to the office network when you're not working. And if you have a GPS-enabled device, turn it off or leave it behind when the work day is done.

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