WWW FAQs: Does my boss know what I'm doing on the Internet?

2007-01-10: In most cases, yes - when you are using a computer at work.

In all but a few cases, your boss doesn't know what you look at on the Internet when you are at home, and probably doesn't want to know. But there's a big exception to this rule, and that's what I'll talk about next.

Blogging Without Losing Your Job

If you are posting messages to the public Internet under your real name or mentioning your employer's name in a public blog, you can fully expect your boss to eventually find those postings! So be smart about what you say and where.

The best way to protect your job: don't talk about your job on the Internet, and don't use your real name on the Internet. Simple!

But if you must express yourself online under your real name, or talk about what's happening at work, what can you do? Here are some common-sense options - but keep in mind that you should never do any of these things while you are physically at work.

Warning: I'm not recommending that you vent about your job on the Internet at all. These are suggestions for those who feel they must. You take any of these steps entirely at your own risk.
1. If you're blogging about work, Blogging under an alias (a made-up name) can be helpful - but take care not to give so many details that your identity is obvious. This is probably your best bet for venting about your job in public. But once again, think twice before doing that at all. Maybe something is happening that the public truly deserves to know about. Then again, maybe not.

2. LiveJournal posts that are "friendslocked" are helpful, because only people on your friendslist can read them. But although LiveJournal is a well-run site, bear in mind there's always a very small chance that they will someday "goof" and somehow make your post public. Such a mistake probably wouldn't go unnoticed for long, but the risk is there.

3. Some folks feel that the right to express yourself in public under your real name is too important to give up because an occasional employer might have a problem with it. If you feel that way, that's fine, but keep the risks in mind and be sensible about what you say. After all, there are probably things you'd rather your mom didn't know either! If it's appropriate for mom, it's probably appropriate for your boss.

Also think about whether something is worth the risk. Expressing a political opinion might be important to you, important enough to risk annoying your boss. (I would personally agree!) But recommending a pornographic website to the world under your real name usually isn't worth it.

"Your" Computer At Work Is Not Yours!

So why can't you do these things while you are physically at work?

In a nutshell: "your" computer at work is not yours. So don't think of it as yours, and you won't get in trouble. Don't surf adult websites at work, ever. And don't discuss anything inappropriate in personal email at work.

It's not pleasant, but it helps: imagine your boss looking over your shoulder. Then decide whether it's truly appropriate to be looking at a particular website right now.

When "Your" Computer At Home Isn't Yours Either

In rare cases, your computer at home might not be private either. This is true if:

1. Your employer "gives" (loans) you a laptop with specific software pre-installed on it. That software could include keystroke-recording software that monitors your every action, as described below (yes, really). Don't treat such a computer as your personal computer. In fact, don't even leave it turned on while using a computer that really does belong to you. Though "sniffing" your household wireless Internet network is extreme and possibly illegal, there's no need to take chances.

2. Your employer expects you to connect to a "VPN" (Virtual Private Network) when using your computer. While you are connected to the VPN, some or all of your Internet traffic is routed through your employer's computers. What does that mean? It means your boss can monitor what you're doing! So, don't treat "your" computer as your own while you are connected to the VPN. For an example of what a VPN connection looks like, see this article on Windows XP VPN Configuration.

"How does my boss know what I'm doing on the Internet at work?"

So you're physically at work, and you've read that you shouldn't expect Internet privacy at work. But you're curious: how can your boss tell what you're up to?

Let me break down the major possibilities for you:

1. Your boss might monitor web traffic as it passes through the office Internet connection. This isn't hard, there are many programs for this purpose. Some employers block popular time-wasting websites, pornography, and so on. Other employers have policies that punish employees who look at these sites for reasons unrelated to their work. Note that locking posts on LiveJournal or a similar site does not protect you from snooping by your boss if you do it at work! That's because your LiveJournal post is still passing through the Internet on its way to LiveJournal, and your boss can monitor it as it goes "out the door."

For the same reasons, your gmail or Yahoo Mail account is not protected from your boss's eyes either. They can see it as it passes through the company's Internet router.

This technique can't monitor your use of secure sites (those that display the lock icon in the lower left corner, such as shopping sites). But that doesn't matter much, because there's another possibility that monitors everything. Which brings us to the second method.

2. Your boss could install keystroke monitoring software on all computers in the office. This software records everything you type on your computer at work.

No employer has time to read all of that, but would they search it for inappropriate phrases? Probably. And would they read it more closely if you were already in trouble - or up for a possible promotion? Very possibly!

The Good News

After reading that, you're probably feeling nervous. The good news is that many employers do have an "appropriate Internet use" policy, and most employers understand that a small amount of personal email actually saves them time - because you're not forced to make time-consuming personal phone calls, and so on. Some companies understand that staring too closely over your shoulder just leads to unhappy employees - especially if employees with your skills are hard to find.

Certainly there are certainly good companies (and good bosses) out there who don't care what you do online, as long as you produce great results, don't distract your coworkers, and never, ever criticize or embarrass your company in public.

So if you're not sure what your employer's policies are, read the employee handbook (if your company has one) and talk to your boss. Don't say "I am already doing this." Do ask hypothetical questions. And keep in mind the sort of person you work for.

When Your Employer Blesses Your Blog

Some bloggers are a special case: their employers actually want them to blog about work. Examples include Matt Cutts, who works for Google. Google understands that bloggers who have positive things to say about their business can help their company generate a positive, accessible public image.

But if you're interested in doing this sort of thing, get the approval of your boss - in writing - before you start blogging publicly about your job! And make sure you know what subjects, if any, are off-limits (such as projects or products that aren't public yet). This sort of blogging can be good for your career, but only if you're careful.

"But I work for myself!"

Hey, that's great - it's nice work if you can get it (and I'd know). But even those of us who are self-employed, self-starting, self-congratulatory Internet mavens have a reputation to think about. Are you out there seeking design clients, publishing contracts, and deals with other entrepreneurs? Probably! And even if you work for yourself today, tomorrow may be different.

So when you're writing under your own name for a public audience on the Internet, take your reputation into account. And keep in mind that almost anything you post to the Internet is public once Google indexes it!

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