Employers often caution employees not to click on weird links that could invite malware into their business networks – but they also need to remind them to be careful about mixing their personal lives with their company laptops.
If you talk to enough IT experts, you quickly come to a conclusion: when you’re conducting your personal life on your business computer, there’s a good chance down the road that somebody’s going to see it.
So with that in mind, here are some of things that tend to turn up on company-owned laptops, and, well, probably on almost all computers and devices.
Well, duh. Still, some company laptops turned in by employees, usually when they’re leaving the job but also when they’re simply upgrading to a better laptop, contain a surprising amount of sexual material.
“There are times I’ve done scans across company computers or tracked internet activity to find that an executive was watching six to eight hours of porn every ... single ... day,” says Nizel Adams, owner of Nizel Corp, an information technology consultation services company in Chicago.
Adams said that some people leave behind their own X-rated photos, sometimes mixed in with their family photos.
2. Illegally downloaded movies, music and TV
This is also pretty common, according to Adams. “Trust me, at least 3% to 5% of employees at every company are doing it,” he says.
An executive working for one of Adams’ clients was distributing cellular hot spots to sales reps.
“Keep in mind these hot spots were using a shared pool of data. So when one or two hot spots start using 200-plus GB of data a month when everyone is supposed to be using only 4 GB, it’s noticeable and affects everyone. The overage charges were astronomical. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars accumulated over a certain period of time,” he says.
3. Old love letters
Andreas Grant is a network security engineer in Stockholm, Sweden, and runs a website, Networks Hardware, which helps people choose the right networking equipment for their home. But Grant started his career as an IT assistant and was in charge of handling a company’s employee laptops. He said that he once found a returned employee laptop that had a love letter on it – an incomplete love letter.
“Both the intended receiver and the writer were still working in the office, so it did feel weird to have that knowledge. I didn’t end up reporting any of it, but it definitely was a great lesson for me to be careful,” Grant says.
It’s something to keep in mind – if you’re holding a torch for somebody in your office and you’ve put your feelings down in a Word document, think about whether you’d want all of your co-workers to know about it.
4. An unpublished novel with unflattering observations
“We once found a novel that a staff member had written,” ssaysid Anthony Cummings, IT services director at Frank Recruitment Group, which specialises in recruiting IT professionals.
It was an ex-employee who had just turned in a laptop. “Nothing too unusual in that,” Cummings said – except that, as he started reading the 150,000 words, trying to discern its importance and if it could be erased, the setting and many of the characters started to seem really, really familiar.
The novel was essentially a fictionalised story about Frank Recruitment, and the characters were pretty unflattering, Cummings says.
5. Weird stuff on, not in, the laptop
Sometimes people close their laptops and leave stuff inside it, sandwiched between the monitor and keyboard.
Corey Donovan, president of Minnesota-based Alta Technologies, sees this a lot.
He says that his company, which buys and sells new, used and refurbished servers, removes drives immediately upon arrival for wiping and that the systems never actually get booted up.
So Donovan doesn’t know what’s actually inside the laptops he gets, but what he sees on the outside of them is bad enough. Many of the laptops have gum, candy bars and pencils jammed inside them. (Alta Technologies gets a lot of laptops from schools.)
But plenty of adults leave stuff on their laptops, too, according to Donovan.
“We’ve had many laptops come in with physical Post-it notes tagged on, detailing bank accounts, passwords, logins and even 12-word recovery phrases to crypto wallets,” Donovan says. “Our staff shreds any material like that, but not all downstream recipients may be as ethical.”
Eric Strickler is the CEO of PCRx Inc, a managed services provider for small and medium businesses. Years ago, however, his company repaired computers. He, too, has found really weird things smashed into laptops, ranging from the innocuous to the gross. On the innocuous side, a hair pin, safety pin and grits and oatmeal – somewhat normal, if weird. On the gross side: a condom, used; cat vomit; a person’s vomit; dead insects; a dead baby lizard; alcohol; urine.
That happened a lot with laptops owned by college students. As for why, “I just never figured it out,” Strickler says.
6. Criminal activity
Yes, this happens, too. Adams said he was once getting rid of everything on an executive’s laptop and found videos of women’s feet and areas of the body that clothes would typically hide.
Adams thought the surrounding areas in the video – the carpet, the desk – looked familiar, and, sure enough, once he and a security guard investigated, there was a small web camera under the executive’s desk with wires leading to the laptop’s docking station. The company’s security team took it from there.
“Sometimes working in IT reminds you that there’s a much darker side of life that, thankfully, the vast majority of people can hope to never experience.”
A Couple of things to remember
When you take your laptop, computer, phone or similar items to be recycled, ideally you’ll get rid of the information yourself rather than let somebody else do it. And you really have to wipe your hard drive – your computer has settings that can do it for you – rather than, say, try to physically break the laptop, which may or may not work.
“We’ve seen people take a hammer and hit a hard drive and think that the data has been deleted. Unfortunately, this is not the case,” says Rahul Mahna, managing director of managed security services atEisnerAmper Digital, an accounting and tax firm.
Mahna adds that plenty of people’s computers wind up at the local dump, believing the recycling centre will destroy it.
“They are leaving all types of data and do not realise people actually come to the dump and take out valuable assets out of the computers, like the memory, hard disks and video cards, and then have access to the data that resides there,” Mahna says.
It’s also important to remember to continually protect your information – personal or business – on your company laptop or any device while you are using it, says Eric Sackowitz, co-founder and chief technical officer of SecureCo, a business-to-business cybersecurity and internet privacy company.
In other words, don’t get so wrapped up in worrying about having your data stolen or seen later that you forget about keeping it protected now.
But Sackowitz agrees that leaving your personal life behind on company laptops is definitely a problem.
“In my 35 years of operating small and large scale IT teams, I have found many interesting ‘leave behinds’ on machines surrendered upon an employee’s exit or retired equipment that was part of an upgrade,” Sackowitz says. He said among those items are “banking info, personal pictures, videos, résumés, email to relatives, dating/gaming apps, clear text docs with account passwords and even family Social Security numbers and birthdates, including their children.”
And that’s what should rattle anyone. You may not be worried about an IT team discovering photos of you in your birthday suit, and believe that you have an extremely boring life on your laptop. But if the wrong person finds your personal information, they may find you utterly fascinating.