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Q: I'll admit to occasionally checking out some non-work-related Web sites while at the officea big no-no according to our Internet policy. Now I'm getting paranoid that my surfing's being monitored. How can I tell if the bossman's watching?
Unless your employer is mired in the Stone Age, it's virtually impossible to detect whether your computer habits are being scrutinized. Odds are, however, that your Web trail is under the microscope. According to a 2001 American Management Association survey, 62 percent of companies scrutinize their workers' Internet connections, 46 percent store and review e-mails, and 36 percent comb hard drives in search of verboten files. Ugh. There are a few so-so tricks to spotting and ditching the panopticons, but they tend to arouse suspicion. And sad to say, the law ain't on your side when it comes to workplace privacy.
Used to be that bosses monitored the troops with keystroke loggers, hidden programs that sense your every tap. Loggers are still around, but today's snoopers of choice are network-wide spies that record the URLs you visit. Deleting your browser history or temporary Internet files won't affect these tools, as they sniff your requests at the server level. The latest versions can also suss out whether you're using file-sharing networks like KaZaA, or even instant messaging services. How dare you IM your wife "Hello"! You've got invoices to authorize, slacker!
Most companies are hush-hush about what surveillance tools they've got running, and they're under no legal obligation to give you the skinny. Very few states currently require that employees be notified that their computers are being watched. New York isn't one of them, though Connecticut, bless its nutmeg-scented heart, is. Maybe your boss will fess up, if asked politely. "Most of these companies aren't keeping it secret out of any sinister motives," says Lew Maltby of the National Workrights Institute. "Your boss might just tell you the truth. And if they say, 'It's none of your business,' they're probably monitoring."
(If your office's el jefe isn't the approachable type, you might also want to try plying a help-desk employee with a few pints of Guinness.)
No luck with the direct approach? Try deploying counter-surveillance software, like SpyCop (SpyCop.com) or Who's Watching Me (Trapware.com). These programs scan your hard drive for keystroke loggers and other locally installed spies. They're not much good against network-based monitors, though, so don't go visiting BritneyCoveredInGouda.com the second SpyCop finishes working its magic.
The Privacy Foundation's Andrew Schulman recommends a simple test to see whether you're being watched on the network level. "If the employer is monitoring Web surfing activity, they are also probably working to block access to certain Web sites," he advises. So go to Google and search for a famous writer (David Sedaris should do the trick) in conjunction with "site:playboy.com." (Going directly to Playboy.com might land you in hot water, dig?) Click on one of the search results; if the page is blocked, or you get your employer's home page, assume that, yes, your boss is up on your surfing habits.
There's not much you can do to route around such monitors. You can try using Anonymizer.com's Private Surfing ($30, or free for a stripped-down version), which scrambles URLs and cripples cookies, but you might need sysadmin privileges to install it on your machine. If you did manage to get it running, the IT folks may start wondering what's up with all the jumbled Web requests popping out of your cubicle. They'd be well within their legal rights to come on down and scour your hard drive for signs that you've been naughty. One errant Coyote Ugly JPEG and you might be toast.
Over a third of American companies have fired people for inappropriate Web surfing, so tread pretty darn lightly. Grumble all you'd like about how fascism never died, but the courts have rarely sided with terminated workers who knowingly violated an Internet policy. Tough as it might seem, hold off on visiting those blasted t.A.T.u. fan sites until after you punch out, OK?
Input questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.