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Employers and Online Privacy: How Much Can They Know About You?

Online eavesdropping and surveillance isn’t just a nasty habit of the US Government – it’s a common practice among private employers these days too.

Many employees are under the mistaken belief that the Constitution protects them from anyone’s acts that violate their civil rights. Not true. It’s supposed to just protect you from government spying (though one could argue that right now it’s not doing a very good job even of that, as ongoing revelations about spying on world leaders continue to make headlines).

Although we do have some protection under statutes at the federal and state level against employer intrusions into privacy, they’re pretty limited. It’s a common practice among employers of all sizes to gather ongoing intelligence about employees in workplace situations, in the name of security or measuring productivity. Here are just a few examples.

  • Reading Your Email: In most large companies these days, any messages you send or comments you post using your company email address are accessible for them to read at any time they find a reason to want to know how you’ve been spending your time at work. Buried deep in the employee handbook at most companies is a little section letting you know that you have no expectation of privacy while using a company email account, company computer, or even a company phone.
  • Consent to Image or Voice Recordings: If your employer requests you sign an acknowledgment stating that your conversations may be recorded or your photos may be used in company advertising, well — your conversations are probably being taped and there’s most likely a camera mounted on your cubicle.
  • Browser History: Employers sometimes install key logging programs or Internet usage monitoring packages that track every action you take on your computer, and in particular every search or site that you visit. In one recent case where an employee was submitting resumes and searching for jobs using a company computer on company time, their job search suddenly got a lot more urgent.
  • Social Media Monitoring: In the recent past, employers were demanding social media passwords so they could monitor employees or review an employee’s online activities. Several states have since enacted laws barring an employer from demanding access to your private account and password. But there are now several “profiling” companies who will create a report similar to a credit report based on your social media activity. The good news is if you’re insulting your boss or company on your Facebook page you may be protected from retaliation, as employees generally have a right to complain about working conditions with coworkers.
  • The bottom line is that employers have great latitude in the ways and means they can choose from in monitoring the activities of employees while on the job and off. But some old school privacy protections do still exist.  For example, an employer still can’t ask your age in a job interview, though they might guess it from looking at those pictures of you playing beer pong in a bikini.

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