Just Who's Computer is this Anyway?

Mike Ameye

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Well, this is an article I never thought I would have to write. Computer ownership was just not something I thought people would get confused over but, after overhearing a number of conversations last week from my co-workers, I realized that quite a few people just don't know how cut and dry this topic is.

Here's the scoop. Over the last few weeks the company I work for has been going through a massive systems upgrade. And as part of that roll out, they upgraded everyone's computer with new versions of software via the network. Announcements were made everyday that the changes were coming and to save everything that you didn't want to lose.

This upgrade, like I said before, was massive. In some cases the software was completely changed over to a new package that the end user had not seen before. There were also security upgrades that allow for remote uploads of patches and system inventories of computers. In short, about the only thing that was the same was the physical computer itself and the files we had saved on our hard drives.

Access levels were changed, passwords were changed, unauthorized software and any related files were deleted, desktop options were locked, Internet access was throttled down (and a content proxy server brought online) and a whole host of other changes implemented. (IMHO, it was about time. The network was slow and the system about 5 years out of date. Here's kudos to one company trying to make it easier for it's employees to do their jobs. . . )

Boy, the wailing and gnashing of teeth I heard around the office would have made an IRS agent proud! Comments like, “Who said they could upgrade my computer" or “I didn't give them permission to access my computer" were common. I was floored!

Ok, I'm going to clear this issue up in short order (and I apologize for the “YELLING" below. . . )

Unless you purchased the computer you work on or you made a deal with your boss or you work for yourself, IT'S NOT YOUR COMPUTER! That's right. Take a deep breath and say the following with me, It's not my computer. . . It's not my computer. . . It's not my computer. . .

Write that phrase out on a sticky note and stick it to the monitor. Write it in ink on the back of your hand or set up a daily pop up reminder. Do something, anything you need to do to remember that the computer you do work on for your boss does NOT belong to you. This will save you a ton of grief in the future. Why? Well it's about privacy - your privacy.

Your employer has the right to do anything they want to the computers they have bought with their own money and connected to their network.

And if you connect a computer you do own to their network, they also have rights pertaining to the intellectual property that may be generated by or stored on your machine.

So what does this mean to you? Well, for starters, don't load anything on the computer that you don't want to be made public. Also, don't use company assets for personal stuff. In other words, don't load any banking software on the machine and balance your checkbook at work. You may lose your data files or you may even run the risk of having your bank balance exposed to the public. Or if you have any “questionable" surfing habits, surf at home. Most company networks today record and store everything, including all the places you go to on the Internet.

Want to see a good example of this? Just recently, a link was posted on the Internet that allowed anyone to go search through the complete email files of everyone from Enron. Enron, since they owned all the email that goes through their servers, decided that it was too much trouble to isolate individual emails for the SEC (that's the Securities and Exchange Commission, a GOVERNMENT agency. The IRS Agent crack above may not be a joke to some. . . ) so they released ALL the emails stored or archived on their system.

Every email, whether it pertained to company business, the hemorrhoid problems of the guy in HR or how many times someone slept with someone else during lunch breaks is now out there for the whole world to see. (I don't know about you but that guy in HR better go see the doctor quick!)

I bet you are thinking that this kind of thing will never happen to you. Right, just wait. Employers are monitoring you at every turn. And if you don't watch out, you could get fired over some email you sent to your Great Aunt Sophie about your dog's coming surgery or a picture that got downloaded to your hard drive from some web page you visited.

Scary, right? You bet it is.

Ok, now that I have gotten my point across, lets take a more realistic look. Most employers don't have some dude sitting in a closet somewhere pouring over every email sent through the system or looking at every file on every employee's computer. The sheer number of people this would take is daunting.

However, what they usually do is use automated tools to look for patterns of abuse. Like multiple hits on an adult Internet site from the same user. They may scrub emails to look for offensive words, etc. Then once a pattern is identified, the employee is contacted and warned to stop. Rarely is someone fired straight out.

In today's world of increased scrutiny, it behooves you to play it straight with the computer at work. Leave the personal stuff at home. Who knows, you may be surprised by the increase in your productivity. At the very least, you won't have to worry over some person reading about your hemorrhoids on the Internet.

It's something to think about.

Michael Ameye has been developing web sites since 1995. He started writing about online privacy issues to answer questions from family, friends and co-workers. Visit http://www.canyourspam.com to see his latest work.

He is also the chief editor of PSS Online, A Privacy, Safety and Security eZine dedicated to bringing important information to people in order to foster a safer more secure environment - online and off. Visit http://www.pssonline.info to subscribe.


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