Confidentiality and Workplace Privacy

A hot issue in today's workplace is that of personal privacy. When communication was limited to telephone or in-person conversations, we had a sense that our discussions were limited to those participating in them. Sure, others in the office might overhear, but the discussion itself was private. No one recorded it (unless it was a voice mail message), and it wasn't likely to come back as evidence in a lawsuit. There was even a sense of immunity about telephone calls; if no one else heard the conversation and it later became an issue, it was one person's word against another. This had the potential to create some ugly scenes, to be sure. But for the most part, there were few tangible ramifications.

Federal and state laws limit the level to which a company can intrude on telephone calls, voice mail, and real-time e-mail (e-mail messages as you're sending and receiving them). Though companies can monitor business-related calls and messages, in reality, it's often difficult to distinguish them from personal calls and messages. Telephone logging systems may keep records of all received and dialed phone numbers. Other forms of electronic communication — notably Internet activity and e-mail — create similar records with the internal numbers assigned to all computers that link to the Internet.

Internet and e-mail are the top reasons for computer use in the workplace, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Over 55 percent of the American workforce — 77 million people — uses computers on the job, and two in five have Internet access.

We sometimes have the perception that because e-mail and Web surfing are digital activities, electronic communications somehow disappear when we're done with them. But they don't. They travel, as bits of electronic data, through a network of computers that store them. This process is for efficiency, not to spy on you. But the bottom line is that while what you do on your computer may appear invisible, someone somewhere has a record of it.

Does your company have the right to read your e-mails? Under laws in effect at the time of this writing, yes. Your e-mails can resurface in ways too numerous to cite, and can have any imaginable consequence. Companies also have the right to track Internet traffic, block access to Web sites, and censor content. Your company has a legal obligation to prevent its computer networks from being used for illegal activity, and can be held accountable for such activity. Employees also are accountable to companies for the way they use company resources. Most larger companies have written policies for Internet use (including e-mail, which travels via the Internet).

Does your company routinely read your e-mails and review your Web surfing activities? Probably not, unless you've done something to raise suspicion. But it's in your best interest to act as though every action you take on your computer is under observation — because it might be. This may include your personal computer, too, if you use it for work or for work-related e-mails.

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