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Opening Arguments

In the zone

We've talked before here about our shrinking zone of privacy, or, rather, the diminishing number of places and circumstances where we have an "expectation of privacy." I keep hoping it will go the other way -- an expansion of privacy -- but it doesn't. Worse, we seem to keep lowering our own expectations. Cameras watching our every move once we leave the house? Hey, no big deal. Government wants an encryption device in every computer so it can peek in at will? Who cares? And younger generations seem not to know or care that everything they say or do in the digital world will be there forever.

Maybe this will be the case that turns things around, or at least gets a good debate going:

The Supreme Court said Monday it would rule for the first time on whether employees had a right to privacy when they sent text messages on electronic devices supplied by their employers.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal from the city of Ontario, which was successfully sued by police Sgt. Jeff Quon and three other officers after their text messages -- some of which were sexually explicit -- were read by the police chief.

At issue is whether the chief violated their rights under the 4th Amendment, which forbids "unreasonable searches" by the government. The Supreme Court's ruling on the issue, due by June, could set new rules for the workplace in public agencies, and perhaps in private companies as well.

This may seem like one of those areas where technology is forcing us to re-examine our laws and the way we use them to define our relationships. But I think the core issue is a familiar one.

I was told by my immediate superior at one workplace not to keep anything personal in my desk. "You just use this office and that desk," he said. "They still belongs to the company, and it can take a look anytime it wants to, without notice and without reason." That offended me then, and time has not diminished my ire. I didn't think my boss had any more right to snoop around "my" office than a landlord did to rummage around in "my" apartment when I was absent. Privacy is a precious right that is necessary to the human psyche, and I resist the idea that we have to leave it in our homes whenever we wander into any public spaces


Kevin Knuth
Tue, 12/15/2009 - 11:31am

I think the issue here is that the messeging device (which I assume is a cell-phone) is not owned by the employee.

At many companies there are policies in place for email- and the courts have ruled that your work email is NOT private- if you use your work email address for personal business, it can be reviewed by the company.

When I worked at FWN I know, for a fact, that some supervisors would go through personal items in desks...so I kept personal stuff at home!

Bob G.
Tue, 12/15/2009 - 12:51pm

I liken this to a company gas card used for the "company vehicle" only.
You don't go and tank up YOUR 3 personal vehicles on the COMPANY'S bank account, with nop thought of paying your employer back.
Ditto for any electronic devices owned by the company and provided to workers for COMPANY USE ALONE.

Stealing is still a crime...doesn't matter if it's money...OR TIME.
(and you can always keep a lock box in the old "company" desk for personal stuff...lol.)

Larry Morris
Wed, 12/16/2009 - 11:09am

Even though "the issue here is that the messaging device (which I assume is a cell-phone) is not owned by the employee", the more I think about this the more I think it will go the other way. If we take this to the logical limits, does the company have the right to listen in on ANY conversation happening in the office ? After all, it is IT'S building, shouldn't it have control of ALL the buildings content ? And what about the pencil and pad you get from the supply cabinet, shouldn't the company be allowed to know about EVERYTHING you use it for, everything you write with it - after all, it owns them both. Ownership of the device is one thing, it's content may be something else. After all, if it's a company owned cell phone and your wife (or husband) calls, is the company allowed to listen in to the conversation - I doubt it, ...

tim zank
Wed, 12/16/2009 - 11:17am

Larry, I have friends that own car dealerships (in Indiana)and all their incoming calls are recorded, have been for years. They play the recorded conversations back every morning in the managers meetings.

I don't know the specific law, but I know it's perfectly legal. In fact it's huge business. They buy 800/888/866 numbers from a company that records the conversations and compiles them in real time for review.

It's kinda creepy, but it's legal, so I have a hunch the company owned cell phone would be the same, i.e. "no expectation of privacy".

Larry Morris
Wed, 12/16/2009 - 11:21am

I'm not saying it isn't legal now - I'm just saying watch what the court does with "expectation of privacy", ...

Kevin Knuth
Wed, 12/16/2009 - 11:55am

There is also the interesting issue of using TAXPAYER FUNDED equipment to send sexual messages.

The courts may rule in favor of the officer, but I doubt the public will.