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How Do Employers Monitor Internet Usage at Work?

Employers may monitor Internet usage through Internet surveillance.
Some programs enable employers to monitor and read employee emails.
An ADSL modem, one way to connect to the Internet.
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  • Written By: J. Beam
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2014
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Most of us would be hard pressed to deny our use of the Internet at work for non-work related purposes. With sites like YouTube, eBay, and Facebook and access to instant messaging and email tempting us at every turn, it can be difficult to resist personal Internet usage at work. While not every person has access to the Internet at work, the majority do. As evidenced by various surveys and studies conducted by media research companies, including Nielson, Burst Media, and eMarketer, those workers who do have access are using it.

According to study surveys, the average employee spends between one and two hours each day using the Internet for personal reasons. Use ranges widely from accessing pornographic and gambling sites to playing games and instant messaging friends and co-workers. People also reported using the Internet at work to perform more innocent, but still personal, tasks such as shopping and banking. The reasoning that many give for using the Internet at work ranges from lack of access at home or having a faster connection at work to accessing the Internet as a result of boredom.

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Whatever the reasoning and whatever the task, employers are less than pleased when their employees waste company time and money to do non-work related tasks online. Most people would feel the same way if they were a business owner, but business values aside, sometimes the temptation to surf is too great to resist. As a result, a vast number of employers have turned to surveillance technology to monitor their employees’ Internet usage at work.

Though many people choose to debate the ethics of employer surveillance, it is nonetheless an interesting concept. With modern technology, some of it identical to that used by malicious hackers, it is possible for employers to thoroughly monitor the Internet usage of all of their employees down to the keystroke. Though how much or how little an employer chooses to monitor is up to the specific employer, there are basically only a few primary ways to set up workplace surveillance and monitor Internet usage at work.

Internet surveillance and desktop surveillance are the two basic types of employer monitoring. Internet surveillance is the active monitoring of a user’s online activity. A network analyzer, commonly referred to as a packet sniffer, is an example of Internet surveillance. Packet sniffers are commonly used by computer network administrators for diagnostic testing and troubleshooting of network functions, but these programs can be set up like spyware to view and capture all information passing over network connections.

With this type of program, employers can monitor its employees’ Internet usage at work, including website visits, specific page views, emails sent and the information contained in emails, as well as downloads and streaming audio and video events. This type of surveillance allows employers to determine how much time an employee is spending online as well as whether they are viewing material or performing tasks that are inappropriate at work.

Desktop surveillance is another form of computer surveillance, but involves the physical monitoring of a specific computer and every action taken by its user. Desktop monitoring allows an employer’s computer to intercept signals emitted by an employee’s computer through the use of software installed directly on the employee’s machine. Desktop surveillance software can be installed remotely or directly.

Like Internet surveillance, desktop surveillance also effectively allows employers to read email and check out any programs or files opened on their employees’ computers, but it also monitors the computer’s usage while offline. Typically, the system administrator is responsible for monitoring the information gathered by desktop surveillance. Unlike malicious hackers, a company’s system administrator may simply be told to look for very specific actions, such as inappropriate website viewing, or they may even make use of an alert system that sends an alert when inappropriate material or text is transmitted rather than participate in constant monitoring.

While many employers find the costs associated with computer surveillance worthwhile compared to the financial loss of wasted time, some companies find it necessary to cut back on their technology costs and choose not to use surveillance software. This does not mean they don’t monitor their employee’s Internet use. Instead, they just make use of the technology already available to them.

In many companies, all of the employees’ computers are connected to the system administrator’s computer. This allows the system administrator to gain remote access to an employee’s computer, which comes in very handy when a problem within a specific program or operation occurs. However, remote access also allows the system administrator to check log files, including emails, website visits, and even downloads, that the user might believe to be deleted or cleared. This means that even though a downloaded song might have been transferred to your mp3 player and all twelve emails from your best friend were deleted, your boss may still know how you spent your day if the system administrator checks log files after you’ve gone home.

Regardless of the type of monitoring or surveillance an employer utilizes for keeping an eye on their employees’ Internet usage at work, it may interest you to know that rights to privacy do not always apply to workplace surveillance. Ethically speaking, an employer should provide notice in some form or another if computer use is monitored. In fact, most employers do provide such notice, either direct or implied. Direct notice such as a posted sign is obvious. While implied monitoring isn’t really a formal notice, it is safe to assume that if an employer has limited Internet access or has system administrators with remote access, computer use is probably monitored.

As for legal rights, current US laws only prohibit employers for intercepting email while it is in transit, not from reading it prior to sending or once it has been received. The law also prohibits the gathering of personal information such as bank account and credit card information. Though legal issues have arisen from workplace surveillance, most final rulings favor employers because they have a right to protect their business, which is viewed as their property. An employer does have the right to reprimand an employee for inappropriate or abusive Internet use.

In the end, proper use of the Internet at work is the employee’s responsibility. Just like they permit the occasional personal phone call, most employers will not scoff at the occasional personal email. In fact, they might prefer a few emails during the day to a few phone calls because they take up less time. However, if it’s obvious a worker spends more time surfing online retailers, watching videos and sharing jokes than they do performing their job duties, they may just find themselves wishing they had spent a little of their time checking job boards instead.

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Discuss this Article

anon958470
Post 61

We use Yaware at work. It tracks everything: lateness, working hours, overtimes, level of productivity, breaks. It even shows how company has grown for a certain period.

I mean the time tracking software is useful and helps to be productive and organized. But sometimes you just want to goof around so much.

anon952334
Post 60

A recent situation happened with my wife. She was given a list of all her computer clicks on the internet. After looking at them, she saw some of the clicks were clustered in 1 second at around 45 clicks. Her boss thinks she has visited 45 sites. Am I right in saying websites update themselves if left on in the background and therefore, this could be shown as a click?

sophia777
Post 59

Well, some may argue that excessive internet use is time theft.

There are a lot employers out there who have no idea how much productivity they are losing and it may be worth the small investment in simple tools which will report on exactly how much none work related web surfing is going on by each of your employees and the type of websites they are going on

There are certainly some employees who spend most of the day just surfing away rather than working and so the companies need to use these measures to give transparency!

anon924792
Post 58

If you're on a company network, you can be remote viewed by any administrator with permissions in real time.

Furthermore, the same thing can be accomplished through SQL with remote desktop capabilities.

If further follows that companies can install on their machines, key loggers, mail duplicators, but many just basically log sites you visit, how many times you visited them etc.

It surprises me daily, that many users do not know they cannot clean out all the cache, just the folders that are privy to them, and folders can be set up that retain all the original caches that only the administrator can access.

If you are an administrator, and do not hold all permissions on your PC, forget using it for anything except work. Even if you're an admin, the people in tech support can still monitor you either with recording software or in real time.

anon352349
Post 57

Right employers monitor their staff for many reasons and there are so many tools which can do it. You can use special software for it, but mostly people use network monitoring software which is installed in the office. Our boss uses Anturis to watch everything around.

anon317773
Post 55

These are all great tips to monitor internet usage at work, but it could also be a self-initiated effort.

anon317143
Post 54

I don't know about others, but my internet usage at work that isn't work related is a result of being unchallenged and bored. My work is done.

anon293612
Post 53

@anon259017: Wouldn't a large Department of Defense contractor have to follow the rules of the DoD? I am wondering why your employees would have access to facebook or twitter on their workstations in the first place. I would think those computers would be pretty locked down.

anon265191
Post 52

My former company uses TimeDoctor to monitor us. It used to annoy me because I don't like being watched at work. Right now, I am doing some freelance work, and I find TimeDoctor very useful. It reminds me of the task I am working on, and helps me set on my priorities. I find myself more productive now.

anon259017
Post 50

(Here comes the differing point of view, from the 'Big Bad Irrational Executive Boss Type').

In all seriousness, I am the CFO at a rather large Department of Defense contractor. I am a very understanding man, and realize that everyone needs to have there down time. Hell, I have to take some time every day to 'look around' at my political blogs I follow just to stay sane. However, there is a problem when you walk by someone's office and hear them frantically clicking away on their mouse, then they look at you walk by as though they have never seen you before. And I know they all have work to do; I gave it to them!

I don't want to 'spy' on their PC usage, but I am afraid they will leave me no other option. (just websites visited, and I don't mind if they go to Facebook or Twitter during lunch).

anon257749
Post 49

The draconian restrictions by companies against personal use of the Internet are wreaking havoc on e-commerce businesses. As with outsourcing, these restrictions are producing a ripple-effect throughout the economy.

The capitalist system is not a rational system, and those in the position of authority within a company are not rational people.

Trickworn
Post 45

I think this a very important thing about the importance of privacy in computer ethics.

anon231713
Post 43

In Europe, I think it's mostly illegal to monitor employees traffic and/or actions, unless there are suspicions for serious crimes. It's absolutely forbidden to read employees' emails. Where have the slogan "freedom for all" gone? There seems to be no more freedom for individuals anymore in the U.S.

The borders between free time and work are more tenuous when you are involved in Information technology, than they are in a factory 9 to 5 job. You may read work-related emails or find out information while at home.

Few of us can work without some interruptions for seven hours or so. So, if you play a game, read a magazine, solve a puzzle, or surf - even porn if you are interested in such (everyone is not) - what's the difference? If you get emails from your friends, that shouldn't either be of any concern for the employer. Usually these emails take less time to answer than the work related ones. Often the so-called friends may also be colleagues, or experts working in a close area.

But of course I understand, that if you chat all day with your friends, or the surfing is becoming an addiction, that the employee needs to improve his/her habits.

anon230050
Post 42

I'm an employee and my boss uses time doctor. I can barely stand to eat or pee. Anyway, I can vouch that time doctor is really good for bosses or employers, but it might kill your employee in the long run (starvation, exhaustion).

anon229425
Post 41

We use CensorNet Desktop Surveillance at work for security but also for fault finding. i.e. when someone phones up and says "thingy gave an error when I clicked it" we can go back through the desktop session and see exactly what the error was and the steps they took to resolve it. Added bonus is that it adds a layer of security as well. Most employees know they are honest and so aren't worried by this kind of program.

timisha82
Post 40

So as an employer, what would you say to your employees through email, that you don't approve of personal web pages in the workplace without making it sound like a bad news message?

crimsonvolt
Post 38

I am working in a company where most of my time is working in the front of the computer. I admit that at first I really can't avoid all those distractions when working.

But then using this screen monitoring software called time doctor it makes me more productive, focused and motivated. Also you should be responsible to do your work and have a bit of self discipline.

anon206290
Post 37

This is why it is really important for a business to establish a strict computer usage policy.

There are a lot of unproductive hours every day caused by employees who have been using their work hours for personal reasons.

This is why businesses really need to employ a strict internet and computer usage policy, but it has to be clearly communicated to the employees to so as to avoid confusion and be able to reach into a clear agreement.

anon192343
Post 36

Silvia I read the article, and it is very interesting, thank you so much! It gave me more information about that subject! Adrian R.

anon178548
Post 35

Why do employers try to fix problems when it shouldn't have been a problem in the first place? The internet usage by employees has a reason. Maybe they're bored because there isn't sufficient work. Maybe they need to wait for an internal process to complete, maybe the job isn't challenging enough.

Try to monitor those problems instead, and try to solve them as well, so you don't need to fix a problem which shouldn't have been a problem at all.

Side note: Research has proven that when employees surf the internet occasionally they become more productive.

anon171222
Post 34

We use CryptaVault too. It has good protection for employees (e.g., can't be used to victimize particular employees) and finds cyber-loafers within three minutes (then prints out a report ready for disciplinary meetings). I looked for nearly six months before buying. this is by far the best thing out there.

anon168587
Post 33

Attach a firewall to your network. Use open source ones to cut cost. Untangle for example, simple and easy to setup and use. --Dmarski

anon166097
Post 32

We're using software called TimeCamp in here and it's very nice. User friendly, with many reports and charts. Helps gain productivity real quick.

anon162817
Post 31

From an IT security standpoint, there are reasons to limit internet usage to work related items only on the enterprise intranet.

1. It increases traffic and reduces bandwidth for legitimate applications and may indicate a need to upgrade capacity unjustly.

2. It potentially exposes the enterprise network to viruses and other attacks at non-legitimate sites.

3. As an employee, you are doing work for hire, for which your employer is compensating you. Have some ethics, people.

4. Depending on the content of the site you visit on non-work related matters, you may be exposing your co-workers to a hostile work environment, for which the employer could be liable. (i.e., pornography, for example)

Employers should provide policies that outline acceptable internet use. If they don't, ask for them.

There are case law examples that provide specific, limit privacy protections for employees within the workplace. See Stengart v. Loving Care, Long v. US Military, and Quon v. Ontario to name a few. The Stored Communications Act, Electronic Communications Act, HIPAA, and other legislation specify certain protected information and circumstances your employer must observe.

anon160206
Post 30

I use the internet at work for Facebook, personal emails etc. I know that the internet is monitored so I started looking into secure browsers. I found one online which can be used without anyone ever knowing what sites you're using.

anon158883
Post 29

We use Websense and CryptaVault, which seems effective at encouraging users to monitor their own surfing habits and curb excesses. Cryptavault also managed to cut the corporation's network traffic by 30% over the last month, which kinda indicates just how much surfing was going on.

anon155589
Post 28

I have a job that has a lot of downtime, and after I get all my work done, I play games on FaceBook. my supervisor does not care,but the company's President finds it unacceptable, but it is ok to read a book, or do a crossword puzzle. What is the difference? I have been told that the company is auditing the employees internet access, and if any time that you have been paid for was spent doing personal things on the net will have to be paid back to the company. Is that even legal?

anon150409
Post 27

You can surf the web using puppy linux live CD which runs entirely in RAM and never goes on the hard drive, check out the puppy linux web site. Also it is much safer for banking online no windows spyware or virus's. Also encrypt your internet traffic with HMA pro virtual private network and even change your IP address.

istok25
Post 25

we used Work Examiner employee monitoring software in our company, and you know, three guys were fired for spending a lot of work time in facebook.

minimeh
Post 23

I trust that Time Doctor is a good software recommendation for monitoring employees' internet use.

minimeh
Post 22

I guess if I were the employer, I would agree to put up such a system for monitoring employees internet usage, since an internet should only be used for work purposes only, not for personal use.

But I wouldn't go so far as doing a check on personal banking information. If the system is effective enough to do screenshots during working hours then I won't worry much as an employer. It's great to just be able to sit down and trust your employees through your monitoring system.

shimmi
Post 20

I'm doing my final year project in business monitoring computer usage, and i found this issue you posted very important to me. I am just asking can you give me names of some books to help me sort the research more, and more about this issue please. thanks

anon121129
Post 19

How is checking one's personal email different from taking a personal phone call on the company's phone line? My suggestion to everyone: get a Smart Phone and check your email that way! Take personal phone calls that way too and some phones are very good for surfing on the internet too.

By thew way, if web pages "auto update" does that not "add" time to internet use even though someone is not doing anything?

anon118807
Post 18

It always interests me to see how people feel like they have the right to do whatever they want on a computer at work now that internet is pretty much a standard if you have a computer.

However even if a person spends hours at work browsing facebook and reading buzzfeed, they don't consider that theft of the time the employer is paying them for. If you are being paid to work, and you are not working (outside of scheduled breaks or lunch) then you are stealing time from the company.

When you wonder why you get a very little raise or none at all, consider this: If you are paid $16/hr and throughout the day of checking sites to "see if there is anything important" for your personal life (e.g. each time you read an email and respond, and each news article, or facebook update you spend time reading or commenting) you spend about one hour (not including lunch and breaks), your employer is paying you $18/hr for work, and you just didn't get to go home after your seven-hour day.

Don't expect him to feel like giving you a raise when you're already making $2/hr more than your supposed to be.

@Anon104868: Your comment on productivity tools is "somewhat accurate". They are not classified as productivity tools. However you obviously loose the fact that if employees get paid for 8 hours a day, and you have lets say 50 employees, that should be 400 hours of labor per day.

Now let's say 10 employees spend 2.5 hours a day browsing the internet and not working, while another 10 spend 1.5 hours, and another five spend one hour. You are in essence getting 355 hours of labor, when you just paid for 400 hours of labor.

With 45 hours of labor being lost there is lost productivity. So if I can now use an application to monitor that web usage, and then address the issue or fire the person if they cannot stop stealing from the company. That sounds like your using the "tool" to enhance your companies productivity by cutting the dead weight and employees who feel you pay them to do personal things.

anon110149
Post 17

My work involves being on the internet. I have my personal email account open along with a google homepage and a third page for what I am actually working on. I also link to AIM with my husband.

I was notified, in writing, that my internet and AIM usage was "excessive". Excessive was not defined.

Should I request documentation showing my "excessive" use? Supposedly it is determined by "usage time" but don't some websites auto-update and could that "add" time even though I did nothing more than have the site up?

I am very upset about this. I check to see what emails come in to my personal account but I do not read them unless they are something I deem important. Most days I do not even get personal emails and most days I do not write or send any out.

anon104930
Post 15

If I viewed a bank website I understand they can tell I was at that site, but can they see the webpage as well revealing my personal info?

anon104868
Post 14

@Anon90418: You are misusing the word 'productivity.'

'productivity tools' is a technical term used to refer to office software. to say that internet monitoring software is used to 'enhance productivity' means nothing more than that it is used to spy on people.

@Anon48117: Depends on the software they use but it is definitely possible.

@Anon34583: They can monitor your internet use without installing any software on your computer.

@Energyman78: Yes. the courts have ruled that information contained on a computer is the property of the owner of the computer. this includes the upstream servers that are used to transmit information. technically, anything you do on the internet passes through a computer that belongs to someone who isn't you, and is therefore their legal property.

both corporate and private internet providers like Cox and AOL can and have provided information stored on their computers for criminal cases against private citizens.

anon90418
Post 12

employee monitoring tools are also used as productivity tools. there are non-invasive solutions that do not invade employee privacy, but provide relevant information for the employer related employee productivity.

anon84371
Post 11

What might work for both the employer and the employee is a site which creates a browser outside the corporate network. Employees can surf to "reasonable" sites like facebook, partially avoiding the company's monitoring software (they'd still know you went to this site and that there is traffic to that site) but they wouldn't see exactly the facebook posts or personal e-mails because it wouldn't be on the company's network.

anon64084
Post 10

Employee monitoring is a very delicate subject and can be illegal if is not done right especially in some countries.

anon62243
Post 9

The IT guy said he can tell from his computer who's online and on which website, etc., but not providing us any report for proof. Is he lying and just try to scare the employees?

anon50050
Post 7

No. 4 Yes, if the computer is configured to log such information. No. 2, that depends very much on the type of monitoring utilized. If it is an OS based remote management setup it could be very obvious. If it is intentionally hidden monitoring/remote management, you would have no real method of knowing. One way of detecting such activity would be to have a network traffic monitor running (Or your own packet sniffer.) but, I doubt your employer would like that much. No. 1 Consult a lawyer per case.

anon48117
Post 4

can an employee view websites visited if off network - like if i take my laptop home and am not connected to their servers and networks- can they see the activity i have done at home? Thank you.

anon34583
Post 2

I'm sure this is an old and often asked question, but- What are the "tell tale" signs that you have been watched, especially with desktop surveillance? Can I use the "Task Manager" check to see what is running on my PC at work? What .exe files are the most popular?

energyman78
Post 1

Is it legal for anyone to observe or monitor your personal internet usage apart from Employers in a work environment?

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