COMMENTARY

'Sexting' at work: Can employees expect privacy on government equipment?

Supreme Court grapples with privacy vs. accountability on government networks

The Supreme Court is gearing up to read some really racy text messages in a case that may determine whether government workers can privately send racy messages to their lovers.

I know it sounds like a soap opera, but privacy while doing government work is serious business. The case in question stems from a police officer in Ontario, Calif., who was caught sending 456 personal text messages -- an average of 28 per shift -- over his department-issued smart phone while on duty. The city’s wireless contract put a limit on messaging, and he and other officers were exceeding the limit, causing overage charges. So the city took a look at the messages for the top two offenders and found that only three were actually work related.

Sounds like an open-and-shut case? Don’t be so sure. In an only-in-America twist, the texting officer—who was allegedly sending sexy notes to his wife, a girlfriend and another officer — sued the department and the wireless company for invasion of privacy, and won. The case has worked its way through the appeals process and now lands at the door of the Supreme Court justices, who I guess will get to read all about what cops like to do with their handcuffs when off-duty. At least the justices will learn why they call it "sexting."

But the larger issue is whether government employees can expect any real privacy when communicating over government computers or mobile devices. I know when my father used to work at the National Institute of Standards and Technology he would never respond to any e-mails from his work computer, saying that he was told that they were, or could be, read by supervisors. Of course he wasn’t sexting, but he was worried that his bosses would say that sending a private e-mail on the government’s time and equipment could be used against him in a performance evaluation.

In the private sector, text messages are (apparently) safe. Wireless providers have said that after a message is sent and received, it’s deleted from their systems.

But government networks are a different animal, as former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick found out when he got involved in a legal battle over the firing of a bodyguard who knew too much about his alleged amorous activities with his chief of staff. A bunch of text messages that would probably make the California police officer blush became part of the legal case when the bodyguard sued, and the messages ended up being read out loud on Fox News Channel.

This is one of those cases where it would be difficult to be a Supreme Court justice. On the one hand, I want to come down on the side of privacy and say that workers should be able to send messages home without fear that some supervisor is going to read them. But if the justices say that, then it might open up the floodgates where people can run up overage charges with impunity. The backlash might be pulling wireless phones out of the hands of government workers who need them, just to control costs.

So I'm torn on this issue. I guess the right thing would be to protect the privacy of government workers, and I know that this means that a few bad apples are going to be given free rein to run amok. But I could be wrong and would love to hear what government workers think of the situation and what, if anything, you think should be done. So feel free to post your thoughts anonymously in the comment section below, and we promise not to have any of your supervisors read them over.

The 2014 Federal 100

Get to know the 100 women and men honored this year for going above and beyond in federal IT.

Reader comments

Tue, Jun 22, 2010

Its a fine line between privacy and the Job. Do we become oblivious to our constitution while were at work. Are we to turn a blind eye to whats wrong when were home. There is no right to privacy anymore and it seems that were just reverting to those thing this country has critcized about so many eastern europeans for many years...

Mon, Jun 21, 2010 Debby Colorado

Having worked federal to local government and in private business, I was taught by parents, supervisors and employers that whatever was issued to me for use for the company/government was a privilege, not a right and therefore was to be used for work. There was an understanding that some private use may occur but it should be incidental. Second issue - with the big push to limit sexting examples for our children, what is a law enforcement officer doing? How can he expect to honestly to arrest someone for doing the same thing he does? Third issue - knowing how hard I have come down on my staff for texting & cell phone as a safety issue as well as taking time from work, he showed inappropriate behavior by misusing his time. In this day and age, nothing is private that is on the net - test, twitter, email, phone messages, you name it. If you want privacy, then do it in private, on your own time, in your own home and even then it might not be so private.

Thu, Apr 22, 2010

What about the safety issue here. It's illegal to text or talk without hands free device while driving and I see police and highway patrol doing it ALL the time. I also see them working on their laptops while driving their patrol cars. Law enforcement don't have superhuman skills that make it safe for them to do these activities. If he was sitting on the side of the road, in an office, or somewhere else, it was still a waste of public resources if he was on the clock. If he was on break or bekore/after work, he should have used his personal cell phone.

Thu, Apr 22, 2010 Nebraska

There are multiple issues here, mixed together. 1) The cost of extra use of government equipment. 2) The use of the employees work time. (could have been on breaks/lunch. We don't know. 3) His expectation of privacy. Although I know that currently we are told that "there is no expectation of privacy on government systems", I feel that there are many circumstances where there should be. If incidental use is allowed, as it is some places, then shouldn't that also carry an expectation of reasonable privacy in that use? There's quite a bit to peel apart here. What if someone texted home details of a medical test, or concerns about harrassent at work? I'll be very interested in seeing how it all comes out.

Wed, Apr 21, 2010 Ken Oklahoma

I have a completely different point of view from what I have seen so far. Why was he sending all these personal messages on company time? Everywhere I have worked in the past, You can not do any personal work on company time. It doesn't matter if it is a private company or a government job. If he sent an average of 28 test messages, then it stands to reason that he also read about that number of messages. If he spent the same amount of company time building a boat, or remodeling a car, for personal use, on company time that would be grounds for dismissal at any job I've ever worked at. I would say more, but my break is almost over and I can't do this on company time. I want to keep my job!!!

Show All Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above