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Can you monitor an employee’s email and internet use at work?

The electronic age has introduced several tricky situations for employers to manage, not the least of which is how much right they have to peek into an employee’s emails and internet habits.

As an employer, what are your rights? What are the limits? Here are some things you should know:

Employer-provided computer systems remain the company’s property

Whether your employees have desktops that stay at work, laptops that can go home with them, tablets they can carry where they want or a company smartphone that they keep in their pocket, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) says that those computer systems belong to the company.

While it’s always wisest to eliminate ambiguity by giving your employees a written statement regarding the way that the company intends to monitor their internet usage and emails, you’re generally entitled to review whatever communications are made with that company property. You can usually:

  • Monitor where an employee is going online to determine if they’re being productive or simply “killing time” at their desk on social media or shopping sites
  • Look for illegal activities, like an employee who is using their work computer to broker illicit deals on the “dark web” or who is stealing money from client accounts
  • Review online activity to make sure that an employee isn’t violating office standards or codes of conduct in some way (like viewing pornography at work)

Private communications stored elsewhere can be more deeply protected

The advent of cloud computing makes an employer’s right to look through employee communications a little more complicated. Generally speaking, the Stored Communication Act (SCA) prohibits employers from looking at private communications that are stored elsewhere. In other words, you can look to see how often an employee is getting into their private email accounts from work, but you probably don’t have the right to dig through those emails.

Knowing your obligations, rights and limits as an employer when it comes to your employees’ use of technology and the internet is important. Find out how an attorney can help you protect your company’s interests.