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The Conversation: Electronic Privacy at Work


“Take off ur shirt, I m unbuttoning my pant…hang on, boss coming 2 c me.” Texting of all sorts is already commonplace at work, but soon might not be yours and yours alone: A case in Calif., where a police officer’s texts on a police department-owned device were read by his supervisors, is being heard by the Supreme Court, with speculation the ruling could impact offices across the country. Justified? Invasion of privacy? Here to discuss are Press staff writer Jaclyn Gallucci, editor Brad Pareso and Editor-in-Chief Michael Patrick Nelson.


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Brad

Wait, you’re telling me if I text someone while I’m at work, my bosses can look at what I’m sending? How am I supposed to leak our cover story topic to other media outlets?

Jaclyn

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I’ll be right back…

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Michael

I think it’s a fine line. Regarding the case in question, the police officer was texting on a department-owned device. What is the reasonable expectation of privacy there? I don’t pose that question hypothetically; I’m sincerely curious.

Brad

The reason the texts were looked at was because they went over a pre-determined limit, but according to an LA Times article from late last year, the cops were told they could use the devices to text and “it was understood” some wouldn’t be work-related. Although it’s highly doubtful that understanding was in anything other than thought.

Michael

OK, well the next logical question is: Where does it end?

Jaclyn

You’d have to be a complete idiot—or Tiger Woods—to think you aren’t going to get snooped on using a phone/device the company is paying for. Of course those conversations are going to be monitored, and I’m sure e-mail is as well. It’s like changing clothes in the office. You don’t see anyone in the hallway. You don’t hear anyone. And you’re early so chances are no one is going to walk in during the next 10 seconds while you’re butt naked. But if they do…it’s nobody’s fault but your own.

Michael

That’s where the question of expectation of privacy comes into play. So maybe if you’re using company property to send text messages, you can’t reasonably expect privacy. But what if it’s your own property being used on company time and/or on company grounds? Can you then expect privacy? If so, on what ethical ground are you standing? I’m not saying there’s an absolute answer to this, only that it’s a fine line.

Brad

I’m in that boat—I use my own laptop as my work computer. So the e-mails I’m sending are on my device, but I’m at the office. Nice gray area there I’m sure lawyers are dying to delve into for $400 an hour. The ruling on this case has the potential to open a huge can of worms.

Jaclyn

I don’t really see too much of a gray area on this one. Personal e-mail, personal computer, personal phone = personal, no matter where it’s used. But if you’re using something the company owns, company e-mail or company phone, whether you’re looking at porn or stacking hay bales on Farmville, expect eyes to be watching,

Brad

I don’t know, does the fact that I’m using a work e-mail account give the higher-ups free reign on my inbox? I guess I should e-mail my doctor my mass-Percocet orders from a Gmail address—then I’ll get related ads offering discounts. Win-win. What if I text on my personal phone at work? If the Supreme Court comes down on the side of the police department, I expect to see employers claiming any correspondence sent inside the office is their business.

Jaclyn

That’s definitely where it goes too far. To me, this is just a matter of property. Right or wrong, I do what I want with my property, whether I’m at home or in the office, no one has the right to pry. But company property—different rules.

Michael

It brings up the question of what it means to be on the company clock. To what extent is one’s time owned by one’s employer? If you send a thousand e-mails a day, between the hours of 9 and 5, using your personal account, is that solely your business? It used to be a company could institute a policy of “no personal phone calls” and more or less stand by that. But new forms of communication technology have led to new protocols, or need for new protocols. If I craft a 5,000-word love letter to my sweetheart on company time, and e-mail it using my personal e-mail account, am I justified in assuming a total right to privacy? And where is the line drawn?

Brad

I think the verdict will give us an idea of where that line is, but look at all the questions we’ve raised in a half-page conversation. There’s a lot of technicalities to hammer out, and I can’t foresee any protocol being issued for a while. In the meantime: Work stuff on work time, personal stuff on personal time.

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