How to Monitor Employee Internet Usage

how to monitor employee internet usage

With employees using company devices and networks at home and in the office, unchecked internet use increases security risks, impacts productivity, and compromises company resources.

As an employer, you must protect your business and be ethical when monitoring employee internet usage. Importantly, monitoring without consent or transparency is problematic, so how can you improve workforce productivity and security while respecting privacy?

We’ll look at processes that allow you to:

  • Maintain employee productivity and focus
  • Protect sensitive company data and systems
  • Uphold legal and regulatory compliance
  • Preserve employee rights and privacy as much as possible

The key lies in finding a measured approach. You can protect your business interests by setting clear expectations and policies, communicating transparently, and using appropriate software and technology while building an open and ethical company culture.

What Can Go Wrong With Employee Internet Use?

74% of organizations are vulnerable to insider cybersecurity threats (internet security concerns that arise from an organization’s employees). 

Internet activity refers to any online activity by employees on company networks and devices. Some examples include: 

  • Web browsing (visiting websites and web pages)
  • Using web-based applications or apps
  • Accessing social media sites
  • Making online downloads or uploads
  • Internet communication via email, messaging, or other applications.

While internet use is essential in the modern working landscape, unmonitored and unchecked internet access can lead to serious operational concerns and reduce employee performance.  

Productivity Loss 

With unchecked internet use, employee performance can become compromised by excessive social media activity, online shopping, browsing irrelevant websites, gaming, watching videos, or listening to music. 

For example, an employee constantly checking social media during work hours interferes with their focus and takes time away from the task at hand. This leads to tasks taking much longer than necessary and wasting company time. 

Security Risks 

Malware, viruses, and data breaches can occur through harmful downloads, compromised websites, and phishing attacks. 

For example, an employee downloading unauthorized software could very likely, but unintentionally, install spyware that steals company data. 

An unmonitored and poorly trained employee could fall victim to an email phishing scam that compromises workplace systems. One report indicates that 94% of organizations are victims of phishing attacks, leading to significant data loss and exfiltration. 

Robust user activity monitoring tools, such as Teramind’s insider threat detection software, help identify security risks of this nature before they become an issue.  

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Compliance Issues 

Unmonitored computer usage often results in usage that violates company IT policies, work hours policies, and harassment policies.

For example, employees accessing explicit websites or gambling services would go against acceptable use policies, and failing to limit social media usage during work hours violates productivity expectations in many work policies.

Network Congestion 

Excessive bandwidth-intensive streaming and downloads can slow internet speeds for all users, and large file downloads or multiple employees streaming video content would significantly slow business connectivity.

Reputational Damage 

In some extreme instances, employees could post content online that reflects poorly on the company. An angry employee venting on social media could spread false claims about the company that damage its reputation.

Given these concerns, it becomes clear that unmanaged Internet access presents multiple risks for employers. 

So, the question remains: what is the best way for organizations to mitigate such risks? Ethically monitor internet usage and train employees on appropriate and acceptable online behavior while at work or using company devices.  

Ways to Monitor Employee Internet Activity

Now that we realize the importance of monitoring employee internet activity, let’s examine how organizations can implement practical yet ethical employee monitoring protocols. 

Two main approaches to achieving this are employee monitoring tools and network monitoring.  

Use Employee Monitoring Software

Specialized employee monitoring software (EMS) enables tracking internet usage patterns across company devices. Specifically, employers using an EMS can: 

  • Record screens: Capture screenshots and video recordings of employee device screens. This allows managers to see exactly what employees are viewing in real time. Screen recordings at regular intervals can also create a visual log of activity.
  • Track websites: Log all websites and web pages visited by employees. This provides visibility into how much employee time is spent on non-work-related sites.
  • Monitor applications: Track the use of applications, including time spent on each app. For example, you can see if employees use work chat apps productively rather than excessively using social media apps.
  • Log keystrokes: Record keys typed on keyboards, including chat messages, emails, documents, and search terms. This can help identify employees sharing sensitive data outside the organization.
  • Monitor network traffic: Analyze overall bandwidth usage and internet activity. Sudden spikes can indicate employees streaming unauthorized content.
  • Track time: Provide insights into time spent on websites and applications. This allows productivity to be assessed by identifying employees’ activities taking up the most work time.
  • Measure productivity: Generate scores based on websites visited and applications used. Employees can be alerted if their internet use productivity score falls below expectations.
  • Set alerts: Set up real-time alerts for attempts to access prohibited sites or content. Security staff can take action immediately on receipt of alerts instead of waiting to review activity logs.

Benefits of employee tracking include increased workforce productivity, reduced security risks, policy compliance, optimized internet infrastructure costs, and legal liability protection.

However, these tools raise employee privacy concerns and must be implemented ethically. 

Organizations should inform employees about monitoring policies and ensure they obtain legally required consent. The collected data should also be anonymized (when possible) and stored securely with access controls.

Network Monitoring

Organizations can also monitor network-level internet activity by using specific software and applications as a possible alternative to tracking individual devices. These include:

  • Firewalls: These control access to websites based on categories and risk profiles. They can also generate logs of all internet traffic, making it harder for employees to access restricted sites.
  • Web filters: Allow and block websites based on content categories. Blacklisting gambling or adult content sites reduces legal issues and compliance risks.
  • Network analytics: Provide insights on bandwidth usage, including top website categories, users, and devices. If entertainment sites are consuming disproportionate bandwidth, limits can be introduced.
  • Deep packet inspection: Inspect network packets to analyze web traffic in detail, which helps identify large file transfers that impact network speeds.

However, network monitoring is limited by a lack of visibility into how individual employees use the internet, which organizations can overcome by implementing EMS along with network monitoring, thus providing fuller coverage. 

How Does Internet Usage Monitoring Software Work?

Understanding the processes behind monitoring employee internet usage is essential to selecting appropriate procedures for the unique requirements of any single organization. Modern employee monitoring systems have four major components:

1. Agent Installation

Monitoring begins by installing tracking agents on all employee devices – desktops, laptops, phones, and tablets. These small software programs run silently in the background, capturing internet activity without interfering with regular use.

For example, at Acme Inc., the IT admin would push the monitoring agent to all company laptops and computers. Employees would not notice the agent once installed and working in the background.

Agents track multiple data points like:

Some capture more intrusive information, like keylogging and screenshots. Organizations must carefully evaluate whether they require this monitoring level before enabling such features.

2. Data Collection and Storage

The agents regularly send the tracked data to centralized servers or cloud-based dashboards. Based on policies, this data can be:

  • Anonymized: This involves scrambling user identities, such as attaching usage data to a device ID instead of an employee name. 
  • Associated: Attaching user details like name, department, and role. This allows usage patterns to be analyzed by teams and individuals.

Most systems allow customizing data identification as needed. The data itself is encrypted and securely stored, only accessible to authorized managers.

3. Reporting and Analysis

Collected data can then be quickly reviewed and analyzed through:

  • Dashboards: Provide at-a-glance views of employee internet activity. For example, a dashboard can display the top websites visited or apps used company-wide over the past week.
  • Activity logs: Check users’ browsing history down to the URL level. Managers can search for and review a specific employee’s internet activity log.
  • Application usage: Understand time spent on applications. The system can generate reports detailing app usage by department.
  • Website categorization: Group websites visited by social media, news, or entertainment categories. If entertainment sites are using up work time, policies can change.
  • Time tracking software: Analyze time spent on websites and applications. Management can then determine if top productivity tools are being leveraged effectively.
  • Custom reports: Generate reports tailored to specific parameters or issues being investigated. Reports can be created for a date range, department, application, or website.

Managers can proactively use these insights to influence employee internet usage positively. For example, the marketing team manager can crack down on social media after reviewing the team’s internet usage report.

4. Additional Features

Many EMS platforms offer additional capabilities like:

  • Real-time monitoring: View live screens and web activity of employees. Managers can take immediate action if misuse is detected rather than wait for reports.
  • Notifications and alerts: Get notified when employees access unauthorized or malicious sites. Instant flags allow quick intervention.
  • User blocking: Block specific websites for certain employees or departments. For example, you can block games and entertainment sites for customer service teams.
  • Productivity optimization: Integrate with time tracking tools, project management, and communications tools, which can be tied back to productivity levels.

Additional Monitoring Considerations

While monitoring employee internet access offers benefits, organizations must carefully weigh several factors. 

Privacy Concerns 

Tracking an employee’s internet activity, primarily via methods like keystroke logging, can be perceived as an invasion of privacy. Transparent company policies and informed consent are crucial.

For example, explaining clearly that keystroke logging is meant to prevent data leaks and will not be used punitively can help gain cooperation. 

Teramind’s compliance monitoring software ensures organizations adhere to transparent and ethical use policies. 

Data Security 

Captured usage data can be misused if not stored securely. Strict access controls and encryption are essential.

Access to usage data could be restricted to the IT administrator, with other managers only receiving high-level reports. Stored data should require multi-factor authentication to access.

Legal Compliance 

Adhere to all relevant laws regarding employee monitoring, which vary across regions. Seek legal counsel when developing policies.

Countries like Germany have strict laws limiting employee monitoring. Companies must familiarize themselves with regulations covering different aspects of internet tracking.

Ethical Use 

Avoid overreach in what data is collected and how it is used. Monitoring must aim to enhance productivity, not police employees. There’s company time and personal time, so knowing when to track activity is essential.

Usage data should trigger supportive actions, like cybersecurity awareness training, rather than punitive steps. Managers should not spy on employee activity without cause.

Balancing Productivity and Privacy 

Ultimately, employers must determine an appropriate balance between monitoring for legitimate business purposes and respecting employee privacy.

For example, restrict social media to break times only rather than banning it outright during work hours. Disable keystroke tracking by default and enable it only for specific high-risk roles.

Is It Legal to Monitor Your Employees’ Computer Activity?

As an organizational leader, you must understand your legal and ethical obligations and limitations before implementing internal employee internet activity monitoring. 

Legal and Ethical Implications

Laws regarding employee monitoring vary considerably worldwide. Thus, depending on the jurisdictions in which you operate, you must familiarize yourself with the obligations that apply to you and your organization. For instance:

  • The USA has limited protections, mainly focusing on electronic communications. Broad monitoring is generally legal if employees receive notification.
  • Canada and Australia have stronger workplace privacy laws than the US, limiting surveillance without cause. Explicit consent is advisable.
  • The EU has stringent worker privacy safeguards. Monitoring policies must be limited to legitimate business needs.

Some best practices include:

  • Establish comprehensive internet use policies for internet monitoring, keeping business needs, legal requirements, and ethical concerns in mind. For example, state upfront what data will be collected, who can access it, and how it will be used. Include details like retention period.
  • Ensure employees are fully informed and consent to monitoring practices. Transparency is key. Have employees sign consent statements explicitly permitting monitoring and acknowledging policies.
  • Limit monitoring to the minimum data needed to improve productivity and security. Avoid overly invasive practices without justification. Enable keystroke logging only for roles with access to sensitive data. Restrict screenshot capture to work devices and working hours only.
  • Collect data anonymously where possible. Avoid tying data to individual employees unless necessary. Mask employee identities in reports for managers unless individually identifiable data is needed.

Data Security and Privacy

Organizations must also implement stringent measures to secure monitored data, including:

  • Encrypting stored data and transmitting over secure connections, thus preventing unauthorized access if data is compromised.
  • Access controls to limit data visibility to authorized personnel only, with multi-factor authentication adding an extra layer of protection.
  • Data retention policies delete logs after a defined period, thus reducing the risk of a data breach.
  • Anonymization where possible. Scrubbing usernames and other personal details reduces privacy impacts.
  • Adding audit controls for all access to monitoring data. Detailed activity logs deter internal misuse.

Such controls help gain employee trust by protecting their privacy. Employees are more likely to comply if promised their data is in safe hands.

Balancing Productivity and Privacy

Ultimately, companies should aim for a balanced approach that improves productivity without impinging on employee privacy. Some tips include:

  • Limit monitoring only to required devices, times, and activities: Avoid overreaching beyond critical needs, such as tracking company-owned devices only during working hours. Disable monitoring outside work hours.
  • Seek employee input when creating policies to address their concerns proactively: Conducting anonymous surveys can uncover employee concerns that you can consider before finalizing policies.
  • Provide clear guidance on acceptable vs prohibited internet use: Ensure policies are not arbitrarily restrictive. Categorize websites and applications as “prohibited,” “discouraged,” “allowed,” and “encouraged.” Completely block truly risky and unproductive websites.
  • Use collected data primarily for constructive feedback to employees rather than punitive action: Discuss insights from usage data during one-on-one meetings. Guide employees on improving habits.
  • Counseling should be the primary recourse for policy violations, with discipline reserved for egregious or repeated cases. First-time minor infractions should lead to a discussion, not a formal warning. Discipline should be used only if counseling fails to correct behavior.

What About Remote Employee Devices?

Monitoring internet activity gets more complex when hybrid or remote teams use personal or company-issued devices outside the corporate network. Some best practices include for remote user monitoring:

For company devices:

  • Install monitoring software on all company devices issued to remote workers. This maintains visibility. Ensure the IT department can securely and remotely access company computers to install the agent.
  • Use VPNs to route internet traffic back to the corporate network for better monitoring at the network level. Traffic routed through the office VPN allows better analysis than standalone device monitoring.

For personal devices:

  • Have remote workers consent to install monitoring agents on personal devices used for work if legally permissible.
  • Many employees may be uncomfortable with this level of monitoring on their personal devices.
  • Limit monitoring only to company activities. Avoid overreach into personal activity and sites used on personal time.
  • Only enable tracking during employee work hours and disable it during off-work times.

Alternatively, prohibit the usage of personal devices for work altogether through BYOD policies. Provide company devices instead.

This eliminates any need to monitor employee-owned devices. But it incurs hardware costs.

Other tips:

  • Educate remote workers on expectations for internet usage when using company assets. Establish clear guidelines.
  • Ensure employees understand what is considered acceptable vs prohibited internet access use when working remotely.
  • Leverage firewall-level website blocking for prohibited sites.
  • Blacklisted sites can be blocked at the network level itself, preventing access from any device.
  • Use web traffic analysis tools to identify suspicious remote activity involving company data.
  • Sudden large data transfers outside the network can indicate unauthorized information sharing.
  • Remotely access open employee workstations to mirror screens or review activity logs of remote tools.

Access remote desktops securely with employee consent for occasional oversight if needed.

With the right policies and tools, organizations can strike an effective balance for remote workers too. The keys are education, enablement and selective monitoring.

The Bottom Line: Don’t Leave Things to Chance

To enhance employee productivity, security, compliance, and cost optimization, monitoring internet activity is essential for organizations. However, as you now understand, you must monitor employee internet usage with the correct ethical and legal considerations. 

Organizations should proactively develop monitoring policies tailored to legitimate business needs, local regulations, employee expectations, and ethical concerns. Transparent communication can help gain staff buy-in and build a responsible internet usage culture.

With a balanced approach, companies can realize the benefits of employee internet monitoring while maintaining employee trust and regulatory compliance. The key is to be selective about what data you track, how you use it, and who has access to it. 

Teramind’s comprehensive suite of endpoint user behavior tools helps organizations achieve this. Start a live demo of Teramind right now.

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