I have a dedicated workspace at university where I have my own computer. I don’t have administrative privileges so I need to get IT support to install programs for me. The service is great.
I’d never seen a support person in person so I assumed they’d always come in while I wasn’t around to work on my computer. Yesterday I put in a new software request and upon returning from a meeting I saw that my computer monitor was displaying a remote session. A support person was using my computer from somewhere else (presumably) on campus.
Would it be an invasion of privacy to watch what was happening? I couldn’t help myself and thought it would be harmless so I looked at the actions of the mouse-pointer occasionally while I wrote notes on paper. It’s surprising how much a single point can tell you about the thought processes of a computer user. Clicking on different installation options visualised the user’s unfamiliarity with the program, eager to investigate the installation process fully – and, in this case, to assure themselves the software included no malicious material. Opening different folder windows demonstrated the user’s way of engaging with the operating system and the navigational habits they have picked up.
I felt a bit creepy doing this. Still, I found it hard to not look. It wasn’t hurting anyone to watch, but would it feel invasive if they found out I was watching? Should I open up a text editor and type a note to them to declare my viewing presence? Or should I just make an effort to not move the mouse or touch anything, to avoid the issue altogether.
The computer made a few of the normal system noises. To keep the noise down for others in my study area, I inserted my earphones into the headphone jack. A system notice appeared on the screen, blowing my cover. (Damn you, smart hardware!)
The computer reset and I got a call from the support person. They asked if I could log in and confirm the requested software was working properly. I started both programs and quickly encountered an issue with local folder locations due to access permissions. Nothing I couldn’t work out myself, but the support person remotely took control of the mouse and tried a few things to solve the problem. I didn’t actually know they could see my session until that point.
So, after not wanting to declare my observational presence because I thought it could seem creepy or a mild invasion of privacy, I am soon led to understand that my own session could be monitored remotely at any time. It probably wouldn’t be used without good reason (a valid service request, for example), and if it did accidentally it would be deemed ‘harmless’, but still, knowing now that another person has the power to observe my actions at any point is . . . interesting.
One positive reading of this scenario is that exaggerating this paranoia, assuming more often that my actions and words are viewable, may make me more confident about my work. I have a tendency to hide my writing and ideas from people until I feel they’re ‘perfect’ or ‘finished’ – which, of course, they never are – because I’m both a perfectionist and, well, quite shy most of the time. It’s possible that raising my paranoia level will help make the practice of early publication and preliminary discussion more common.
The new normal: someone may know about it anyway, so why not have regular conversations and engage with more people?