Future Tense

Will IT Know if I Watch Porn on My Work Computer?

Introducing Slate’s IT advice column, Try Restarting.

Man wearing a suit furtively closing a laptop.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

This article is part of Update or Die, a series from Future Tense about how businesses and other organizations keep up with technological change—and the cost of falling behind. It is also the first installment of Try Restarting, Slate’s IT advice column. Got an IT question? Try restarting, and then email us.

I’ve worked at the same place for four years, and I’ve had just one work laptop. I realize that’s not a huge amount of time! But it’s starting to get slow, and if I have more than seven tabs open in Chrome, the fan makes noise like it’s just run 10 miles in winter clothes. Am I overstepping if I ask for a new computer? What if this is all my fault?

There are really two issues to address here—whether you are entitled to a new computer, and whether you actually need one.

First, most companies expect their devices to last three or so years. Check if your company has a policy on the hardware it issues to employees, and don’t feel guilty doing so.

If you are not eligible for a new device, your IT person will try to figure out why you think you need one: Is the software struggling with outdated hardware, or is the computer beach balling because you’ve filled up your hard drive with cat memes and selfies? Given how long you’ve worked at your company, it’s definitely reasonable to ask for a new device, but don’t rule out the possibility that you might be your own computer’s worst enemy. Just be prepared for IT to troubleshoot what they think might be the cause of your issues before handing over a new laptop.

One possibility is you don’t have enough RAM—say, only 4 GB. A few years ago, that kind of memory capacity was more than enough. Now you check your email client, use Chrome to browse a bit, open your 18th and 19th tab (please don’t do this) … and boom, your computer thinks it’s Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix. Today, a typical user will need about 8 GB to multitask comfortably, in my experience. So it’s possible a RAM upgrade will end your woes—unless of course, your computer model has the RAM soldered to the motherboard.

What’s that? You do have 8 GB of RAM and your IT person had you delete some of those cat memes, but you still need a new computer? It could just be that you want a new computer. It’s hard not to run for the latest features, the newest design, and a slimmer product as soon as it hits the stores. But sometimes manufacturers put out tech a little too hastily. Look at the newest MacBook Pro, from 2016: The first iteration had users mourning over the revamped keyboard, the form of which screwed the function. When the new Chromebook was unveiled at CES last year, neither the hardware nor the software was finished. So it’s important to check your motivations when asking for a new computer. Just because, say, a new iPhone comes out every year doesn’t mean it’s worth your (or your company’s) dime. And also, the environment will thank you. (By the way, if you have a base-level MacBook Air from 2014—just guessing—there’s no point in asking for a new one, since Apple hasn’t updated the specs on that model. Ask for something else.)

There’s no need to feel weird about asking your IT department if it’s time for a new computer. Just be prepared to be asked why, to hear no, or to have your ticket closed with the label “USER ERROR.”

Obviously a person should never view, um, adult entertainment at work. But if a person has a work-provided machine they carry around, would it be a problem to use it for such purposes at home? Specifically, will IT know I’m using my work laptop to watch porn?

Dicey! Here’s what I can tell you: The larger your company, the more likely its IT infrastructure covers off-network monitoring or software reporting. On the other hand, the smaller the company, the more time IT has to go through each user’s stuff.

So IT might know. The real question is: Does IT care? When I worked at Apple’s Genius Bar, we’d see all kinds of malware and pop-ups, and we’d definitely know which ones came from porn sites. Meanwhile, computers running Windows are susceptible to all kinds of attacks, and free adult sites are rife with malware waiting to Trojan horse you. If you frequently rely on IT to fix issues with your machine, maybe bring them a doughnut or some other delicious treat once in a while to appeal to their better nature. Or actually, don’t, because who’s nice to IT anyway? You’d just end up looking suspicious.

Could IT find out if you’ve been watching porn on your laptop? Yes: No matter the setup, there are ways. But do we have time to go looking for it? Probably not, because we’re busy showing someone how to back up their computer for the nth time, or we’re monitoring the company’s systems for, you know, actual security threats. For you, it’s one of those risk-vs.-reward situations. Is it worth getting reprimanded or fired just to get your rocks off on company property? Truly up to you! But if you really want to, you can take steps to minimize your risk of being found out.

Just like I told my residents when I was an RA in college, if you’re going to smoke weed, don’t be so blatant about it that I have no choice but to bust you. If you are in a nonwork environment and you really want to watch porn on your company-issued computer, just make sure you’re on your own home Wi-Fi and not VPNed into the office network or anything like that. Look into using a Tor browser. And don’t forget to check and delete your cache and cookies after the deed.

Or here’s a crazy idea: Just use your phone.

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