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Mark Grossman

Tech Matters and Employees

16 January 2004

I write most of my columns for management. This week, I’m flipping my perspective and writing to everybody , but management. The theme is a simple one. Things you needed to know so that your computer doesn’t become your worst enemy.

Privacy and the Office

Let's start with privacy issues at the office. The generalization is that the company owns the computer and everything on it. It doesn't matter that you may control some passwords. The company still owns the data.

If you want to take the analysis one layer deeper, it's true that my generality has some exceptions. Still, for the purpose of discussing how to keep your computer from becoming your worst enemy, you should accept the generalization as fact.

Another rule of thumb is don't use your office e-mail for personal correspondence because your company can read it. Again, don't confuse having a password with having control. Always assume that the company has a master password that gets management into your stuff. Moreover, as an aside, management should assume that the I.T. department can read their stuff. It makes you wonder who's really in control.

It comes down to this, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy on your office computer -- period. Don't rely on your company's Computer Use Policy even if it would appear to give you some zone of privacy.

The goal isn't litigating about your right to privacy with some former employer. The goal is the computer not being your worst enemy.

A related point has to do with deleting data. You should always assume the worst case, which is that once you input it into a computer, you can never make it go away. Sure, we could get into an esoteric discussion of swap files, recycle bins, backups and file wiping, but that's not the point. The point is simply assume you can't make inputted data go away. The "why" is a boring technical discussion.

This means if you don't want your boss reading it, don't type it, e-mail it or scan it. Don't assume that even a wipe is a perfect solution. Have you considered those backup tapes or your swap file? Those backup tapes are a great example of something you can't control and may be the ultimate reason why you can't be sure that what you've deleted is gone.

You Represent the Company

It's really simple here. What you do on the computer is no different from what you do with paper and pen. It really is as uncomplicated as the same rules apply.

You send a letter with a statement like, "She's a thief," and if it's not true, that's libel. Your company gets sued (and maybe you too), and your company loses. You send an e-mail or instant message with libel in it and it's like paper, it's actionable, there's a lawsuit and you lose.

You like your competitor's website and since it's easy to copy and paste from it, you do. After all, it's the Web, which is like the Wild West and if they didn't want it copied, they shouldn't have put it on the Web. Therefore, you're okay. Right? No, wrong.

Forget that Wild West metaphor. It's a myth. Cyberspace doesn't exist outside of the legal system. The very same laws apply to your Internet connection as to you sitting at your office in front of your keyboard. The idea that once something goes out into the Internet it's in this lawless "place" is ludicrous -- yet widely believed. Forget what you think you knew.

This next one should be common sense, but I'll say it anyway. You shouldn't use the office computer to entertain yourself at adult Web sites. Just assume that both your company and the website you're visiting are tracking your activities. You should just presume that your company maintains a complete log of everything you do on the Web and that knows that somebody from visited them even if you don't register or buy the "goods."

Online Contracting

When you visit a website and it asks you to click "I Accept" to an agreement, you should assume that the "I Accept" button makes the contract you're "accepting" as valid as your signature. For example, if you're buying from a supplier online, be careful about the online terms and conditions changing the deal you negotiated with your supplier offline.

One way to deal with it would be to have your standard written agreement say something like, "Notwithstanding the online terms and conditions, the terms of this document shall govern all transactions between the parties." Now, you're covered.

What Law Applies

When in doubt about online law, just assume that the same law applies online as offline. While it's true that there are many exceptions to this generalization, it's a better rule of thumb than the Internet is the Wild West and a lawless place.

Tech Matters and Employees is republished from
Mark Grossman
Mark Grossman