Enterprise IT Watch Blog

Dec 15 2009   11:52AM GMT

Worker text, e-mail privacy gets a Supreme Court review

Michael Morisy Michael Morisy Profile: Michael Morisy

In many cases, it is trivial to monitor or access employee e-mails, browsing history and texts, and it’s standard operating procedure at some companies. But should there be some level of an expectation of privacy when employees are using company computers, phones and mobile devices?

That’s the question that the Supreme Court has agreed to tackle as it reviews USA Mobility Wireless Inc. v. Quon. As CNN reports, the case would cover what, if any, expectations of privacy federal employees have at work when they’re using their employer’s equipment:

The department has a “Computer Usage, Internet and E-mail Policy” that gives workers only limited use for personal communications. Quon signed a statement acknowledging that “use of these tools for personal benefit is a significant violation of City of Ontario Policy” and that “users should have no expectation of privacy or confidentiality when using these resources.”

It was only in reading the transcripts voluntarily provided by Arch Wireless from its electronic archives that the often-racy messages to his wife, his girlfriend and a fellow officer were revealed, prompting an internal department investigation.

A review of one month found that Quon had sent and received 456 personal messages while on duty, an average of 28 per shift, and only three were deemed work-related. A federal court judge characterized many of the messages as not “light personal communications,” as defined in the policy as generally acceptable, but words that were, “to say the least, sexually explicit in nature.”

When I’ve spoken with IT professionals on the matter of personal privacy at work, the number one piece of advice is spell policies out. It seems like the City of Ontario did that, and still ran into problems, suggesting what a thorny issue it is.

GigaOm’s Sebastian Rupley also takes on the case, noting other cases where the federal government has been accused of overstepping its bounds, particularly when it comes to social media:

This isn’t the only recent dust-up involving the privacy rights of government workers online. Earlier this month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), working with the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley, slapped a lawsuit against half a dozen government agencies for refusing to explicitly state their policies for using social networking sites for investigations, data collection and surveillance. The suit specifically charges that the agencies are withholding information on data they’ve collected from their workers’ usage of Facebook, Twitter and other social applications.

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