Is Chrome’s Incognito Mode Really Private?
This is a big source of confusion, even though it really shouldn’t be. Many people mistakenly believe Incognito Mode will suddenly give them total privacy and hide their browsing activity from their employer.
Chrome’s incognito page says the following right when you open it:
Pages you view in incognito tabs won’t stick around in your browser’s history, cookie store, or search history after you’ve closed all of your incognito tabs. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be kept.
However, you aren’t invisible. Going incognito doesn’t hide your browsing from your employer, your internet service provider, or the websites you visit.
So why use Incognito Mode? The purpose of using it is to hide your Internet activity on the PC/laptop you’re using. Incognito Mode doesn’t store any cookies or history and disables third party extensions, so the chances of a malicious app stealing your data is lowered. You also prevent Google and other advertisers from recording your info and serving you intrusive ads.
Can my employer monitor my smartphone activity?
If you’re using a phone provided by your company/employer, then yes, they can track everything you do on it. This means your apps, notes, photos, Facebook activity, banking history, and other data could be stored by the company. They may not be able to view personal emails you send in Gmail or Yahoo as these don’t transmit through the corporate server, but there’s the possibility your phone has a keystroke logger installed that monitors everything you type. Your employer can also remotely wipe your data, which usually occurs if you’ve been terminated from the company.
They likely won’t be actively monitoring your phone, meaning going through every single log and piece of data that comes through their system, but they are recording and storing those logs somewhere. They’ll audit a specific person’s history if there’s a reason to such as potential fraud, reports of abuse, performance issues, or the system gets triggered somehow (i.e. they’re browsing porn). If you’re using your phone once in a while to check Facebook or send some personal texts, I wouldn’t worry too much because most companies don’t have the resources to deal with cases like this, nor would they have any incentive to actually crack the whip on you.
How do you tell if your employer has monitoring set up? Usually the phone will have Mobile Device Management software installed such as MobileIron or Microsoft Intune. These programs can pull browsing history, app downloads, texts/emails sent, locations, etc. and compile them into a weekly report for management.
Can my boss track my location through my smartphone?
Yes, they can enable GPS tracking on your smartphone. This practice is becoming more common. Most companies don’t do this to keep a tab on where their employees are, per se, but rather to ensure the safety of their devices.
There was a controversial case relating to this a couple years ago. An employee of Intermex, a company that handles wire transfer services, turned off the GPS tracking on her phone and was subsequently fired.
How exactly does my employer track my data?
As a network admin friend told me before, it’s very easy for the to see what you’re doing. Programs like Wireshark allow them to sort through the network traffic based on source or destination. They could simply plug their laptop into a mirroring port on one of the routers and collect every packet that’s sent. They usually do this to diagnose traffic issues. VNC (virtual network computing) programs allow them to remotely view your screen without your knowledge. If they have access to your filesystem they can view any contents in your folders.
Now, it’s true that some of this data can be encrypted. When you send texts through iMessage or Whatsapp, for instance, all message traffic between the server and phone are encrypted to prevent outside parties from seeing the content. It is possible to see how often you use these apps, and if they felt like it, could install a man-in-the-middle security certificate to read the content of those messages.
Don’t think your employer can’t match your activity to you, either. Let’s say you browse reddit on your phone at work. They would be able to tell which router you connected to at what time (ie. the one nearest your desk) and by which access point you used. Or sniff out the type of phone you have based on cross-referencing the equipment.
Should I purchase my own personal phone instead of using the one my employer provided?
It’s definitely recommended you have both a personal phone and a work phone. Even if you don’t plan on doing anything suspicious on a company-provided phone, you’ll still be giving up a lot of privacy and increasing the risks of getting flagged. If an employer wanted to they could go through your texts and probably find a lot of details about your personal life you wouldn’t be comfortable divulging. It also gives the company an excuse to let you go by citing some asinine reason such as “slacking off on company time.”
Some companies don’t provide phones to employees but have a bring-your-own-device policy, and they’ll insist on installing management software onto your personal phone. In this case, I would highly suggest negotiating with your employer to give you a work phone, insisting that your personal phone is strictly for personal use. There’s usually an incentive involved in BYOD such as a monthly stipend or nicer device of your choosing, and you might prefer having only one phone instead of two…but if you value your privacy at all don’t do it.
And while there are federal and state laws to protect your privacy and prevent unauthorized access to your electronic communications, these laws aren’t usually strictly enforced and employers can violate them either accidentally or purposely. You could always threaten them with a lawsuit if they do breach their contract, but do you really want to go through that headache?
Am I really being spied on at work?
While your employer has the capability to track all your activity, is there really someone sitting in an office spying on your every move? Probably not, particularly if you work for a larger company. These monitoring apps are usually there to mitigate data loss, prevent fraud, and meet compliance laws.
There are exceptions, of course. If you work in a bank, for instance, their Compliance departments are very stringent about what you can and cannot say to clients, so there’s a good chance all your emails are being read. They flag certain keywords and phrases that will alert them to any kind of suspected fraud like insider trading. For instance, if you have a target price for a stock, they’d rather you write “xyz stock has potential downside” instead of “xyz stock will go down to…”
How common is it to get fired over your browsing activity?
Getting terminated for inappropriate Internet usage definitely happens. A survey conducted in 2008 found that in a sample of 304 US companies of various sizes, more than a quarter of employers have fired workers for misusing email and one third have fired workers for misusing the Internet. Of those fired over Internet misuse, 84 percent was because the employee was viewing porn (no surprise here). Those fired over email misuse were largely due to violating company policy or because emails contained appropriate content.
So obviously you shouldn’t watch porn and use offensive/inappropriate language in emails. But should you be scared of simply surfing the web at work or sending personal texts? It’s hard to say. It’s greatly dependent on your specific company, employer, and IT department. Read through the company policy and try to figure out if anyone’s been let go in the past over their Internet or phone use.
While monitoring practices and technologies have grown over time, employers have also become more aware that actively tracking workers’ Internet usage at work is demotivating and creates a distrustful environment.
How do I stop my employer from monitoring me?
Ok, so we’ve established that you should always assume you’re being monitored at work. Is there anything you can do to protect your privacy or hide what you’re doing?
The short answer is not really. Any attempts at preventing monitoring will look highly suspicious. If your computer is suddenly providing no data, they’ll know you’re blocking tracking which will trigger suspicions.
That said, if for some reason you need to block tracking for a short period of time, you can give the following a try.
Root Out Tracking Software
The first thing you want to do is figure out what third-party remote access software is currently installed on your system. Common applications are RealVNC, TightVNC, UltraVNC, LogMeIn, and GoToMyPC. Once you find one of these, you can temporarily disable it through the task manager or system preferences.
Block Network Trafficking
Your company can see what you’re doing because your traffic is passing through the network system unencrypted. To encrypt your traffic, you’ll want to use a VPN or proxy.
Disable Smartphone Permissions
Your smartphone has a lot of default permissions enabled that many would consider an invasion of privacy, including GPS tracking. We go into depth on how to disable these settings if you have an iPhone here.
The truth is your employer can track pretty much everything you do on your work computer and phone. Trying to bypass it for prolonged periods of time will raise eyebrows. However, if you’re not comfortable with this lack of privacy, the only real way to avoid snooping eyes is to buy your own phone or temporarily use a VPN.