Don’t Keep Personal Data on Work Computers


February 20, 2009   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Anyone working in a professional environment knows that standard 9-5 jobs are a thing of the past. More and more, our jobs are seeping into the time that we’d spend running errands, shopping, or keeping in touch with family. Because the borders or work and play are blurring, many people are now not only bringing work home, but bringing some of home to work in the form of keeping personal files on their work computers.

It starts innocently enough. One day you’re checking personal email on a work PC and before long, your workstation becomes a storage system for personal to-do lists, photos and music. If you are in the office enough (and way too many of us are) you might start to pay bills online and save the confirmation pages to your computer for your records.

In all honestly, most companies do not mind this type of thing as long as you are doing it on your time (breaks, lunch, before work, etc.) and as long as the stuff you are saving is not harmful to the company (like viruses in email attachments). Being able to do this kind of stuff from work keeps you happy, keeps you in the office longer (which usually means more productivity in the long run) and just makes life less stressful. So, we’re all happy, right?

Well, for now. But, what happens when you leave the company? I work as a Computer Tech in a corporate environment and that means, that sometimes, I know a person is being let go before they do. We are asked to disable that users account as they are being called into a meeting and given the news. This is not done to be mean to the person, but to protect company assets. So how does that employee now get their data back and how much of it is read by others?

I know what many of you are thinking. It is their data and they should be able to log in and get it. Unfortunately, you are wrong. If the data is on a company computer, it is the company’s data, and if the employee is let go, they no longer have a right to access it. So what can you do if this happens to you?

Prevention, Prevention, Prevention…
Like just about everything else, your best bet is to prevent this from happening. Pick up a USB flashdrive at your local electronics store. If you feel that you have to do personal business at work, use that to store all your data (if external drives are allowed). This will allow you the comfort of being able to save files while at work, and at the same time, the data stays yours. Take it home with you at night to keep it safe.

Ok, great. But, what if you have data on your computer and are let go tomorrow after reading this. (lets hope this is not the case)

Here is what you do:

    1. Let your now former boss know that you have some personal data saved on the computer that you would like to get off before leaving. 
  • Explain that none of it is company related and that he (or someone else) is welcome to sit with you to verify this while you copy the data to DVD/CD or External hard drive. 

At this point, most people would say go ahead. At my old job, we usually would allow this unless we had a really good reason not to. So let’s say they have a really good reason not to.

    1. Ask if they can have IT get the data off for you 
  • Be prepared with a list of the files you need and the location of them, and have an external Drive ready for them is possible. 

When we had a reason to keep the person off the computer, we would get the data for them. I cannot remember a single instance where we refused a person their personal data after being let go, there is just no reason to do it. So be nice, and chances are all will end well for you.

What NOT to do:

    1. Do not make threats. The data is on their computer, it is now theirs, you have no claim to it, so be nice. 
  • Do not try to hold company data hostage in exchange for yours.
      • In another post which inspired this one, one commenter mentioned that he had configured his computer to only allow a login with his fingerprint and if they tried to block access to the computer from him, he would never let them back on. Several IT personnel quickly pointed out that as long as they have the computer, there is little the person could do to keep them out, and this is very true. The only thing this does is anger the people you want something from. 
  • If you have company data at home and make this kind of threat, be prepared to be charged with theft. The data belongs to the company. You withholding it from them is theft.
  • Do not be unreasonable. Do not expect them to let you take projects you worked on, documents/articles, etc. that you authored. If you did it for work, it is now theirs, that’s the end of it. 
  • If they let you get your data, do not try to steal company data. This is illegal and a quick way for you to not only lose what you want from the company (your personal files) but also get in a lot more trouble. 
  • If they let you get your data, do not try to delete anything that isn’t yours from the computer. This is just stupid and can be considered destruction of private property. You will get in trouble for this, and most companies will have backups of the data anyway, so it is useless.


Written on 2/20/2009 by Jordan Silva. Jordan Silva is a Systems Administrator living in Honolulu, Hawaii and author of Think Smarter, a blog created to share tips, tricks, and hacks to get technology working for you. Photo Credit: TedsBlog

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