Before delving into the subject, I’d like to remind you that the Help Desk is here to help you with your biggest questions and scruples. We also want to know what’s happening at your workplace. Are there any workplace technologies that worry you? Are some policies changing the way you work? What’s the future of training with your employer? Tell us and we will do our best to investigate your biggest problems.
What’s your biggest workplace technological frustration? Tell us about it.
Now, let’s get back to the privacy of your workplace. We spoke to several privacy experts to understand how workers should think about their digital workplace communications and the services they use. Here’s what they had to say.
Q: Can my employer see my private messages at work?
A: Privacy experts agree that there are two things workers should think about when texting a colleague. First, is the service you are using provided by your employer? Second, are you having a conversation on a device provided by your employer?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, please note that there is a chance that your employer will be able to see or retrieve your messages. Also, even if you’re using your device and personal account on a digital service, your messages may still be at risk if you’ve installed the software at your workplace.
“The reality of what’s happening is changing very rapidly,” said Alan Butler, executive director and president of the research organization Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Different devices, software and things are being used… and the burden is on the individual [to understand it all]. “
The rule of thumb is to assume that if your workplace provides you with a tool or device, they can and will see what you do on it, Butler said. In some cases, this could mean using administrative privileges to read direct messages or private channels in the company’s Slack workspace. It could mean retrieving emails, messages on Microsoft Teams or SMS on company-provided mobile devices. Or, it could mean screenshots of a person’s messages on other services like Facebook, Twitter, or Apple’s iMessage that come from the company’s tracking software.
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The issue can become particularly relevant if workers use messaging apps to unite against unfair employment conditions or policies, said Cynthia Khoo, senior associate at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology.
“There is a standard level of monitoring that is increasing,” he said. “But there is an additional layer of monitoring that serves to crush work organization and activism.”
Even if employers can’t retrieve messages on your device, they may be able to get metadata that will help them map which employees may have been in the same conversation, said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, senior staff technician at American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. They may also ask you to provide your private messages from your private device related to a workplace conversation in an internal investigation, said Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of the nonprofit Workplace Fairness.
“You can decide if you want to honor [the request]but you could potentially get fired for not honoring it, “he said.” It’s fair game. “
First, if you want to have a private conversation with a colleague, it’s best to do it on your device using your services, experts note. Also, look for services that provide end-to-end encryption versus just encrypted messages, Khoo said. End-to-end encryption means your message will be encrypted the instant before it leaves your device until it arrives at the receiving device. Anything less means that it could be decrypted somewhere during transmission.
It also suggests looking for services that offer ephemeral messages so that the messages disappear within a certain amount of time. Several experts agree that one of the gold standard services for private messaging is Signal. WhatsApp is also a popular alternative, although Khoo points out that users should be aware that it is owned by Facebook–parent Meta, which is widely known for massive data collection.
Gilmor says he thinks of your digital conversations as in-person conversations, during which the location in which those discussions take place is important.
“You wouldn’t go and have a conversation outside your boss’s door,” he said. “You would find a more discreet way to do this, perhaps when you are out for a drink or near heavy machinery in a factory.”
Experts say it might be best to establish for yourself which service operators they will collectively use before moving online. In this way there is no trace of consent.
But even with the best software, “nothing is foolproof,” said EPIC’s Butler. Although Signal allows users to disable screenshots of their conversations, the recipient of the message can still use a second cell phone to take a photo of a message on the phone where the message was received, he added. And your privacy also depends on the person you’re talking to as they could eventually deliver any private message despite the service or device, Gilmor said.
That said, sometimes workers have to keep the truth in power and that may have to happen on corporate channels. “It would be a shame if everyone respected the line,” she said.
And some conversations are protected by law. So if someone talks to coworkers about poor conditions in the workplace and pushes them to respond or act collectively, employers would be breaking labor laws if they retaliated against it, Ndjatou said.
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Ndjatou says that in general the best advice for workplace messaging, regardless of their level of privacy, is to know your audience and use common sense. Anything you say can always be used against you, and if a conversation is particularly sensitive, it may be better to use the old way of communicating.
“If possible, meet in person and not digitally at all,” Khoo said.