Security & Privacy

10 Things You Shouldn’t Do on Your Work Computer (or Phone)

Posted on May 14th, 2020 by

When you’re at the office, working on your employer’s computer, it’s important not to do certain things. The computer isn’t yours, and, if your company is large enough, your boss may use software to check what you do, which websites you’ve visited, and may even read your emails. The computer belongs to the company, and it’s their right to keep an eye on it.

The same is true if you have a work-issued laptop, or even a phone. These devices aren’t yours, and your boss can, at any time, take them back and check all the data they contain. Since a lot of people are working from home now, they may be using computers issued by their employers. To ensure that your personal data remains private, here are 10 things you should never do on a computer or phone given to you by your business.

Introduction: Create a new user account to work from home

In this time when many people are working from home, some may have computers given to them by their employers, and others may be working on their own computers. If you do the latter, you should absolutely create a new user account for your work, and only use that account when you are on the company’s dime. We discuss setting up user accounts in this article.

It’s easy to switch accounts; just click the Fast User Switching menu extra in the menu bar. If it’s not visible, click Login Options in the Users & Groups pane of System Preferences, then check Show fast user switching menu as, and choose Full Name, Account Name, or Icon. From this menu, you can choose your other account, and your Mac will switch to it quickly; you just need to enter your password to start using the account.

1. Web Browsing

Depending on your job, you may need to browse the web occasionally, or very often. And when you’re not busy, you may be tempted to surf your favorite websites. No employer will be upset if you check the sports scores occasionally, or read up on what’s happening around your town. But if you spend too much time surfing on the company dime, your employer may not like it.

Many businesses use employee monitoring software, which can track how much time you work in different apps, and it records a list of all the websites you’ve visited and how much time you spend there. This sort of software can also take regular screenshots of what’s visible on your computer, and even log your keystrokes, or what you type.

And using private browsing won’t help. All that does is prevent the browser from storing information about your session; your employer can see those pages or tabs the same as any other.

Don’t look for a job when you’re at work; don’t spend time playing games on the web; don’t shop online when at work; don’t visit Facebook (unless it’s part of your job); don’t do your banking; and, especially, don’t look at porn: that could be a firing offense.

2. Email

You probably have to send and receive lots of emails during the day, but you should never, ever, use your work email account to send personal emails. Your employer will keep these emails in accordance with their standard email archiving policy, and they may contain personal information that you don’t want shared. While you can use email on the web – such as Gmail – you shouldn’t do that either, as employee monitoring software can record those sessions, and keep screenshots of your messages. If you have no alternative, and need to send an important email, do so, but don’t make a habit of it.

3. Instant Messaging

Just like with email, any instant messaging you carry out will be monitored and recorded. So don’t message friends or family.

However, as far as messaging to colleagues on non-work topics goes, it depends on the organization. Some companies will have a strong policy against "chatting" over IM apps or services like Slack, but others may see this as part of creating a virtual water cooler, especially for employees who work in different locations.

Make sure not to waste too much time, but small talk is often the social glue that helps individuals bond, so a total prohibition may not be ideal.

4. Don’t Connect Personal Storage Devices

You may be tempted to bring a USB thumb drive to work to tweak a PowerPoint presentation for the local PTA, then print it out. But you should never do this. For starters, your file could contain malware, but any such device could suggest to your employer that you may be exfiltrating files as well. Depending on where you work, you want to avoid this sort of thing.

5. Don’t Use Personal Files

You can bring personal files on an external storage device, but you can also get them from a cloud storage service, or from an email. You shouldn’t. As in all the above scenarios, your employer can see what you’re doing, and if there’s any personal information in a file – such as a bank statement or medical report – it won’t be personal any more.

6. Don’t Download Files

Unless you need to download files for your work – and it’s not uncommon to download PDF files from suppliers or customers, or images and videos if you work in marketing – don’t download anything. There is always a risk that the files may contain malware.

7. Don’t Stream

This is a gray area. Many companies will be fine with your plugging in a pair of headphones and streaming music while you work, but others may not want their bandwidth used this way. It’s not that music takes up a lot of bandwidth, but if lots of employees are doing this, then it could be problematic. As for videos, don’t hit YouTube or Netflix at work, and definitely don’t torrent pirated content.

8. Remember that You Can Be Tracked

While all of the above apply to both computers and phones, remember that with a laptop or phone, you can be tracked. While laptops don’t generally have GPS, they do have systems that allow their locations to be approximated. As for your phone, it tracks your every movement. When you’re off work, turn off employer-provided devices. You really don’t want your boss to know that you visited the offices of a competitor if you’re looking to change jobs, and this is something they could see from logs on your phone.

9. Never Save Personal Credentials

Okay, maybe you do log into a website once in a while; and your employer is willing to let you do this, such as when you’re on your lunch break. You should never save your personal credentials – your user name and password – for any of these sites or services, because your boss or IT department will be able to access them later. Treat your work computer just as you would a public computer in a library: don’t leave any personal traces.

10. Don’t update your resumé

If you’re looking for a new job, it’s a good idea to not update your resumé while on one of your employer’s devices (unless you’ve been laid off). If your employer finds out, it may be the last thing you do in that job.

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Macs, iPods, iTunes, books, music and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast and PhotoActive, and a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than twenty books, including Take Control books about iTunes, LaunchBar, and Scrivener. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →