I recently noticed that there were more people in my life who had obscured their work laptop cameras than not — a first for me. “I do it because I’m terrified of my camera being hijacked and used to spy on me at home by my work,” one colleague explains. “Especially when I’m a) doing things naked; b) picking my nose; and c) eating.”
More seriously, he also mentions “Big Tech and governments both domestic and foreign” as other causes for alarm — the same things that concern another friend of mine. “I’ve been doing it since this fall,” she says. “I had a little issue with the government after an internet fiasco, and my lawyer told me not to speak about certain things via any kind of recorded messages, like texts and DMs or out loud, just in case. That freaked me out. Then I figured if I’m going to censor conversation as if I’m surveilled, I should probably censor the visuals too.”
Here, of course, is the typical PSA in stories like these: Privacy doesn’t exist when it comes to what you do at work (and while using anything belonging to your employer). In the same way private employees lose other rights as part of their employment (e.g., freedom of speech), employees lose their right to digital privacy, particularly when using company-owned equipment, servers and technologies. Per the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, “The owner of the email, IM and phone message systems is allowed to access electronic communications.”
In practice, this means monitoring employees is both super easy and unavoidable. As the employment law firm Granovsky & Sundaresh PLLC details on its website:
“Your employer can monitor just about anything that comes in and out of work devices and over its network. This includes, but is not limited to, internet usage, downloads, files stored, anything displayed on screen, time on the computer, keystrokes, what websites are visited and for how long, words used, emails sent, received and stored, instant messaging and chatting. Your employer can also review deleted emails and files. If you are using a company phone, the employer may also monitor the call, voicemail and text messages.”
“When it comes to this privacy issue, a lot of people are quick to say they don’t care because they have nothing to hide,” says Stewart Richlin, a cannabis lawyer in L.A. “But it’s important to remember that in the future, people with different values could look back at these images and the consequences could be different then.”
So should I never to take a Photo Booth picture on my work computer again?
“It certainly can’t hurt,” Dr. Rick Forno, director of the Cyber Security Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tells me. “Many, but not all, of my computers have a cover. I don’t use tape though; I use a little thing I can slide over when I need to use the camera. Public disclosures have recently confirmed that spying through your camera is very doable, which is why you started seeing a lot more covered cameras. It absolutely helps with privacy and is just one easy solution that anybody can do. There’s malware, viruses and other types of things that can take over your camera, too.”
He adds that despite the ubiquity of technology today, the general user’s knowledge of it remains low. “It’s not just taping over a camera or unplugging your Amazon Alexa; it’s thinking critically about how we use technology in our daily lives, and finding that balance between our ability to do our business as a normal person in the modern world versus our ability to be private and secure.
“Look at Facebook right now: A lot of people are suddenly up in arms that Facebook was selling our information to other companies. Well, I’m sorry, but Facebook’s job is data collection. You were contributing your data and your life to this machine, so really the onus isn’t on Facebook, it’s on the user for not knowing what they were getting into or realizing that their personal data and pictures and whatnot, could be used for nefarious purposes.”
The same is true of your employer. Obviously, the hope is that your boss won’t scrutinize your online habits like Oxford Analytica — unless you give them a valid reason to do so. Still, it’s always worth remembering: The logs already exist, and everything we do only adds to them.