Feeds

Employee privacy versus employer policy

US court rulings cast doubt on privacy policy

Protecting users from Firesheep and other Sidejacking attacks with SSL

Your organisation has a computer and internet use policy. Fine. It's been reviewed by corporate counsel, approved by senior management, and implemented over the years. The policy is comprehensive - it includes policies on expectations of privacy, employee monitoring, and the ownership of corporate electronic assets.

Now, during the course of an internal investigation, you want to read an employee's email, examine the contents of his company-supplied computer, and review his telephone calls made on the company-owned cell phone. You are all set, right? Umm...not so fast.

A pair of recent cases in the United States raise the fundamental question, "do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy at the workplace?" In the United States at least, most people confronted with this question would answer a resounding no, right? I mean, the company policy makes it clear that the computer and network are company property, and that we shouldn't expect any privacy there.

However, there is a genuine divergence between what companies say and what they do. There is also a divergence between what employees regurgitate about their expectations of privacy (corporate mantra) and how they actually act. My own answer to the question, "do I have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace?" – of course! What we really need to do is better define the scope of that reasonable expectation of privacy.

Policy policy policy

In the course of an average day at work, an employee leaves a great deal of "digital detritus" – a trail of activities. The ownership of these digital records, as well as an employee's privacy rights with respect to them is not entirely clear under the law. Employers provide employees with a number of tools that leave a digital trail. This may include their computers, email accounts, internet access, VPN access, regular phone, VOIP service, cellphone, alphanumeric pager, RSA SecurID token, not to mention the video surveillance, and records of badge entry and exit.

Complicating these issues are the questions of ownership, access and rights. For example, an employer may purchase a cell phone for an employee and retain ownership of the phone. Or it may allow the employee to buy the phone, but register it on a corporate plan for service. It may reimburse the employee for all telephone calls made or require the employee to demonstrate the business nature of calls reimbursed. Employees may telecommute from home using either employer or employee supplied equipment. The internet connection to the office may be paid for by the employee or the employer. When logging on remotely, does the ISP have any right to monitor content? When a VPN connection is made, who may monitor what happens on the VPN? May your employer burst into your home, seize your personal computer (that you own, but store some of their files on) and take it?

Privacy in the workplace extends beyond the electronic workplace. For example, can your employer read your personal mail, sent to your office address – even if it is marked "personal and confidential – addressee only?" Can your employer videotape you in the office? Audiotape you? What about in the restrooms, lounges, parking lots, or in your car?

It's easy to say that employees have no expectation of privacy, and even to post corporate policies and notices to that effect. But do you really mean it? And do you really enforce it? The answer to both questions is probably no.

Website security in corporate America

More from The Register

next story
Phones 4u slips into administration after EE cuts ties with Brit mobe retailer
More than 5,500 jobs could be axed if rescue mission fails
Israeli spies rebel over mass-snooping on innocent Palestinians
'Disciplinary treatment will be sharp and clear' vow spy-chiefs
Apple CEO Tim Cook: TV is TERRIBLE and stuck in the 1970s
The iKing thinks telly is far too fiddly and ugly – basically, iTunes
Huawei ditches new Windows Phone mobe plans, blames poor sales
Giganto mobe firm slams door shut on Microsoft. OH DEAR
Phones 4u website DIES as wounded mobe retailer struggles to stay above water
Founder blames 'ruthless network partners' for implosion
Found inside ISIS terror chap's laptop: CELINE DION tunes
REPORT: Stash of terrorist material found in Syria Dell box
Show us your Five-Eyes SECRETS says Privacy International
Refusal to disclose GCHQ canteen menus and prices triggers Euro Human Rights Court action
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.
Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet
Explores the current state of website security and the contributions Symantec is making to help organizations protect critical data and build trust with customers.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.