Sending nasty text messages about your boss – or sending an email to another company asking about openings – always rated high on the employee risk scale if you were using a work-based account. Never mind the existence of personal email accounts; some workers felt they had a reasonable expectation of privacy even if they were sitting in a cubicle.
The Justice Department and lower courts said no, but the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has actually ruled in favor of those workers. The court said employers who outsource email and electronic communications to an outside company do not have the right to read those emails just because they’re paying for you to use those services; they have to get your permission first. Of course, all emails kept on internal servers are still fair game.
The new privacy protections also extend to unreasonable seizure of your emails by police. Law enforcement must obtain a warrant if they want to see emails and text messages that have been stored for less than 180 days. This is especially interesting when you consider that it was actually a case involving police officers that prompted this ruling. Four cops in Ontario, California sued because the department’s outside wireless provider was telling their bosses if their pagers were being used for things other than police business.
This case is probably heading to the Supreme Court because of the investigative/national security implications for law enforcement. In the meantime, will small-to-medium-sized businesses invest more in in-house electronic communications services and all the IT spending that goes along with that? Will potential employees be asked to give up email privacy rights during the hiring process, or does that possibility open up another legal Pandora’s box? Discuss among yourselves – extra credit if you do so via text message.