Welcome to Tech Support, a segment where I, Dan Howley, serve as your intrepid guide through the sometimes confusing, often frustrating, world of personal technology.
Here, I answer all of your most pressing questions about the various gizmos, gadgets, and devices you use in your everyday life.
Have a question of your own? Reach me on Twitter at @danielhowley, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, on to your questions.
This week's dilemma:
“Can my company see what I do on my work laptop or phone?”`
With so many of us under some form of stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’re all looking for ways to keep occupied. And stress-baking can only go so far.
So you’ve probably found yourself browsing the web, shopping on Amazon (AMZN), or streaming movies on your work laptop or phone to pass the time. And your company might know you have, too.
Yes, if you’re using a laptop or phone provided by your employer, they can track what you do on them to some degree. Now before you start trying to recount every time you’ve looked up celebrity gossip, or gone down a YouTube rabbit hole on your work device, take a deep breath, because everyone does it.
Monitoring while working from home
Heck, I ordered a smart scale on my work laptop while writing this piece, so I can keep track of how many pounds I’ve put on while cooped up in my apartment. It’s a lot.
And given the interest in apps like Zoom (ZM), chances are you’ve been video chatting, and drinking, with friends and family on your work devices, too.
If you’re using your work device for personal reasons, you need to automatically assume that your company can see what you’re doing. After all, it’s the firm’s device, not yours. They gave it to you to do work, not figure out which of the original Pokémon starters are best, something I took 10 minutes to look up while writing this on my work computer.
If you log into your company’s virtual private network to access proprietary data, then your company can see what websites you’re browsing, as well. That’s because your network traffic is being sent through the VPN, which can see what websites you’re visiting.
Other companies include software on their devices like keyloggers and other measures to ensure you’re being productive.
Got a corporate smartphone? Well, chances are your company is able to control the apps you download and use, as well as remotely wipe the device.
I used my work laptop to download some of my wedding photos, so I could print them up for a Valentine’s Day gift to my wife, because I’m the greatest husband ever. But doing so immediately means that my company is able to see that I downloaded those photos, and then uploaded them to an online printing service.
If you use apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams, regardless of whether it’s on your work computer or you install the apps on your personal device, your company can look at your past chat logs. The same thing goes for your corporate email. So try to keep your conversations as work-centric as possible.
As a fun tidbit, your chats could also be subpoenaed if you or your workplace gets into any legal trouble. So best to keep everything PG.
Monitoring in the office
So what about when we eventually return to our offices? Will your employer be able to see what you do online from there? You better believe they can.
When you’re in the office and connected to your company’s Wi-Fi network, you should assume everything you’re doing is being monitored, whether you’re using a corporate device or your own smartphone.
It only makes sense for a company to be able to see what kind web traffic is passing through their network, though, explained Dave Levin, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland Cybersecurity Center.
“If you're on their Wi-Fi network, they can absolutely track all of the IP addresses that you are communicating with, which again, they would kind of be irresponsible if they didn't do that, right?” Levin told Yahoo Finance.
“Because if they saw that...maybe you had some kind of malware on your device, and you were going to lots of different IP addresses that are known to be bad, that are known to be where there's malicious activity happening, and it looks like you could have some kind of malware that could be exfiltrating data, it would be irresponsible of them not to monitor things to a certain extent.”
There are plenty of different ways for your company to set up its network security to track employees. It can, for example, look out for massive fluctuations in the amount of bandwidth being used to determine if a user is downloading inappropriate apps, or black list websites so you can’t access them to begin with.
So should you stop using your work laptop or smartphone for personal reasons? That depends. If your company lets you browse sites that aren’t work-related, chances are they don’t mind that you do so every once in a while. That goes for a phone they provide, too.
But it’s important to remember those devices aren’t yours. Your company owns them, and that means anything you put on them can be seen.
Bottom line: Don’t expect any real privacy on a device that your job provides.
As far as your own laptop or smartphone, when you’re on your company’s Wi-Fi, there’s no privacy — the company could in theory catch what you view.
It’s important to keep in mind that some companies won’t ever look at what you do on your device. Many times, the only reason a firm will investigate an employee’s laptop or smartphone usage is when a complaint has been filed against them, or if they’re suspected of some otherwise improper behavior.
So if you’re worried that you’ll get canned for checking Twitter (TWTR) or doing some shopping during the workday, rest easy.
But if you want a complete sense of safety, stick to doing work on your work devices, and leave the personal stuff for your own gadgets.
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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.