TODAY'S QUESTION: Should workers expect privacy when using company technology?

Thursday, December 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 4:46 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 17, 2009

For many professions, work and technology are now interlocked. However, standards for the amount of privacy employees have when using company-owned equipment remains nebulous.

That could change this spring. On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case where it will decide whether employers have the right to monitor text messages sent on company pagers. City of Ontario v. Quon could establish new rules regarding workers rights for privacy on employer-owned electronics.

The police department in Ontario, Calif., provided officers with pagers. Officers say the department’s informal policy allowed the pagers to be used for personal messages, as long as they paid for any overage charges. However, the department investigated officers whose devices regularly went over the monthly limit. Message transcripts from the city's wireless provider were one piece of information it acquired.

Transcripts showed that Sgt. Jeff Quon sent his wife, girlfriend and another officer hundreds of personal messages. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Quon and other officers, ruling that they had a “reasonable expectation of privacy" and that the department violated the Fourth Amendment. It also found that the wireless provider violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act by turning over the transcript. The San Francisco-based court’s decision is the first by a federal appeals court to find that the Constitution protects workers privacy rights when they are using electronic devices that their employers own.

The topic has also shown up in New Jersey’s Supreme Court. The state's highest court will decide if a home health care provider has the right to monitor all activity on the company’s technology systems includes one employee’s e-mails with her lawyer. Sent from a personal account on a company-owned laptop, the messages were about a lawsuit she was filing against the employer for sexual harassment and ethnic discrimination. A lower court determined the worker’s employee-client privilege outweighed the company’s policy.

New Jersey’s bar association said that companies with zero-tolerance policies for personal use of their equipment aren’t acting in their best interests.

"Many employers now concede that a zero-tolerance policy that prohibits non-business use of workplace communication equipment and access is unworkable and unwelcome," the bar said in a brief.

How much privacy should workers have when they use technology that their companies own?

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Ray Shapiro December 17, 2009 | 2:56 p.m.

Companies may "own" the technology but do they "own" the employee's personal information?
To what extent do they "own" the employee?
How do we address malicious intent and abuse of that which we "own?"

(Report Comment)
Eric Niewoehner December 17, 2009 | 10:40 p.m.

The allowance of privacy is a function of an employee being informed as to an employer's Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). It usually presents itself as a boring disclaimer whenever an employee logs onto the employer's computer. Most policies clearly state that privacy is not to be assumed.

Courts have ruled in favor of employees in the past, but usually because employees were not adequately warned, or the company exceeded its claim as posted in the AUP.

What will really be interesting is how this ruling can be justified in light of the fact that companies are fully liable as to the use of and content on computer systems. I doubt this ruling will stand up to an appeal.

In a consultative capacity or in teaching IT security, I have always advised employees to not assume any privacy. Everything that is written into a computer system can be read by system administrators. If they must use e-mail, cell phones or text pagers for personal use, use common sense.

(Report Comment)

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