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Columbia Missourian

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

By Casey Smith
December 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

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?