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Mark A. Stein: There’s probably creepy software on your work laptop

Employers are watching their remote workers with software with names like Controlio, Sneek and StaffCop.  (Tribune News Service)
Employers are watching their remote workers with software with names like Controlio, Sneek and StaffCop. (Tribune News Service)
By Mark A. Stein Rate.com

Last April, just as employers had sent millions of office employees home to work remotely, they went on a buying binge of creepy software with names like Controlio, Sneek and StaffCop – the better to monitor your every keystroke from afar.

Orders for such programs soared 87% in April. These kinds of software programs enable your employer to do the following:

• Read your email

• Peruse any personal files on the laptop

• Collect screenshots of what you look at

• Watch you via your laptop’s camera

• Log every keystroke, including, in some cases, the time between keystrokes when you – oh, I don’t know, go down the hall to the bathroom or fix yourself a sandwich.

One bank employee in London, on condition his name not be used, remarked: “Employees are worried to step away from their desks, have full lunch breaks, take bathroom breaks or even get up for water as we are not aware of the repercussions this might have on our statistics.”

It’s one more COVID-related career hassle to think about. Your best bet for avoiding trouble – and a gross invasion of your privacy – is to conduct only work activities on your work laptop and use a separate computer for all personal stuff. If your employer hasn’t issued you a laptop, but your personal unit is hooked up to the company servers, assume they’re watching.

There are no federal laws and few state statutes that limit how far employers can go in monitoring workers on or off the job, and managers have wide latitude to fire anyone who resists using a computer equipped with spyware – or refuses to have it installed on a personal computer they use at work.

“Employers have broad legal leeway to monitor employees on company-provided devices and devices connected to company services and Wi-Fi,” said Enid Zhou, counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “There’s not a lot of restriction on what employers can do if they can argue it is a business need.”

What are they looking for? Top concerns cited in an American Management Association survey: “adult” sites, game sites and social networking sites.

Don’t have your own laptop? To keep personal matters private, text or email about them only from your private smartphone when it is not connected to a company Wi-Fi network. Other tips: Always assume company-owned laptops, smartphones and networks are monitored. Don’t store personal files on company-owned devices. Don’t use tools like Google Docs or Slack for anything you don’t want your employer to see.

Could you just disable spyware or find a workaround to avoid it? You could search your laptop or smartphone for monitoring apps – a Google search turns up more than 30 of them, including DeskTime, Teramind, Kickidler and Time Doctor – but companies install them using innocuous-sounding or nonsensical names, making them hard to find and disable. Even if you succeeded, you’d raise a red flag in the IT department, which could have job-ending consequences.

Some people have tried battling software with software. Move Mouse, for example, is a simple free program that simulates users repositioning their mouse, clicking its buttons and scrolling its wheel. Separately, a company called Presence Scheduler will, for a fee of $2 a month, make sure your Slack channels appear busy even when you are away from your desk.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation website has a Surveillance Self-Defense section with a guide to tools that enable you to encrypt data and use the Tor anonymizing network. It bears remembering that your IT department may detect this.

Lawyers and security consultants have persuaded companies that they need to monitor workers, not just to hound you about the number of keystrokes you make or the time spent on bathroom breaks. They want to make sure you are not harassing fellow workers, for example, or storing illicit material (read: pornography) on company servers, or defrauding the company or its clients, or stealing customer data or selling trade secrets. So much to worry about.

Working remotely, of course, hasn’t turned people into bullies or creeps or thieves. So, what gives with the spike in sales of employee-monitoring spyware? Why not just see if workers meet the goals set for them by managers?

That’s a view shared by Kate Lister, president of the San Diego consultancy Global Workplace Analytics. As she wrote in HR magazine, “In a world that’s increasingly global and mobile, whether people are nine floors, nine miles or nine time zones apart, the only way to know if they’re doing their jobs is to manage by results. Anything else is just baby-sitting, and the more you treat people like children, the more they will act the part.” And little wonder that many wise to the employment market engage in a never-ending job search.

Rate.com/research/news covers the worlds of personal finance and residential real estate.

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