Your business emails and messages must not be private. Tips to protect yourself. – The Washington Post | Hot Mobile Press


You may have noticed recently that many of your casual work conversations that used to be face-to-face have shifted to digital apps in your evolving work environment. But beware: your messages to your colleagues may not be as private as you think.

As more companies allow their employees to work remotely, either part-time or full-time, distributed workforces are turning to digital services like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Google Chat to get their work done, collaborate and connect with their peers. Sometimes that can mean casual conversations about weekend phenomena, work troubles, or personal relationships taking place online, creating a digital record of all communications. As such, workers should consider which platforms and devices may or may not offer privacy and adjust their behavior accordingly, privacy experts say.

Before we dive into the topic, let me remind you that the helpdesk is here to help you with your biggest questions and concerns. We also want to know what is happening at your workplace. Are there any workplace technologies that you are concerned about? Are certain policies changing the way you work? What does the future of work look like at your employer? Tell us about it and we’ll do our best to investigate your biggest issues.

What is your biggest technical frustration at work? Tell us about it.

Now back to your privacy at work. 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 sending a message to a co-worker. First, is the service you are using provided by your employer? Second, are you making the call on a device provided by your employer?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, be aware that your employer may be able to see or retrieve your messages. In addition, even if you use your own device and personal account with a digital service, your messages can still be at risk if you have workplace software installed.

“The reality of what’s happening is changing very quickly,” said Alan Butler, executive director and president of the research organization Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Devices, software and various things are used … and the responsibility lies with the individual [to understand it all].”

The general rule of thumb is to assume that if your workplace provides you with a tool or device, it can and will see what you’re doing with it, Butler said. In some cases, this may mean using admin privileges to read direct messages or private channels in the company’s Slack workspace. This may mean checking email, messages in Microsoft Teams, or texts on your company-provided mobile devices. Or they could be screenshots of someone’s messages on other services like Facebook, Twitter, or Apple’s iMessage, taken from the company’s monitoring software.

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The matter can become particularly momentous when workers use messaging apps to unite against unfair working conditions or policies, said Cynthia Khoo, a senior associate at Georgetown University Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology.

“There’s a standard level of surveillance that’s on the rise,” she said. “But there is an additional layer of surveillance aimed at quelling worker organizing and activism.”

Even if employers can’t retrieve messages on your device, they may still be able to retrieve metadata that will help them figure out which employees may have participated in the same conversation, said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, senior staff technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy and technology project. They can also ask you to provide your private messages from your private device in connection with 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 be fired if you don’t comply,” he said. “It’s fair game.”

First, if you want to have a private conversation with a colleague, the best way is to do it on your own device using your services, experts emphasize. Also look for services that offer end-to-end encryption as opposed to just encrypted messages, Khoo said. End-to-end encryption means your message is encrypted the moment it leaves your device until it arrives at the recipient’s device. Anything less than that means it could be decrypted somewhere in transit.

She also suggests looking for services that offer short-lived messages, so messages will disappear within a certain amount of time. Several experts agree that Signal is one of the gold standard private messaging services. WhatsApp is also a popular alternative, although Khoo points out that users should be aware that it’s owned by Facebookparent Meta, which is widely known for its massive data collection.

Gillmor recommends treating your digital conversations as face-to-face conversations, where the location of those conversations matters.

“You wouldn’t have a conversation outside your boss’s door,” he said. “You would find a more discreet way to do this — maybe when you’re out for a drink or on a factory floor near heavy machinery.”

Experts say it’s best to establish what service workers will share personally before going online. That way there is no record of the consensus.

But even with the best software, “nothing is foolproof,” says EPIC’s Butler. While Signal allows users to turn off screenshots of their conversations, the message recipient could always use a second cellphone to take a picture of a message on the phone that received the message, he added. And your privacy also depends on the person you’re talking to, because despite the service or device, they could end up leaking private messages, Gillmor said.

However, sometimes workers need to hold the truth to power, and that may need to be done through corporate channels. “It would be a shame if everyone just had their turn,” he said.

And some conversations are protected by law. So if someone talks to colleagues about poor working conditions and urges them to react or act together, employers would be breaking labor laws if they resist, Ndjatou said.

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Ndjatou generally says that the best advice for news in the workplace, regardless of its level of privacy, is to know your audience and use common sense. Anything you say can always be used against you, and when a conversation is particularly sensitive, it might be best to resort to the old-fashioned way of communicating.

“If it’s possible, just meet in person and not digitally at all,” Khoo said.

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