COMMENTARY

Sexting is just the start of workplace privacy concerns

Medical, marital and financial issues sometimes come up during work hours

The vast majority of our readers appear to agree with the U.S. Supreme Court that you can’t expect any messages you send on employer-issued equipment to be private. Your employer, the court ruled, does have the right to examine the content of your messages.

Our readers took a firm stand in agreement with the court. A reader in Nashville, Tenn., put it like this: “I was telling co-workers as early as 1998 that there should be no expectation of privacy while communicating on any employer-owned equipment. … If it truly must be private, use your own equipment and communication service. … [E]mployee communications on company equipment and services should be considered as if you were putting it on a billboard on Main Street.”

The case at hand involved a police officer from Ontario, Calif., who was sending racy “sexting” messages to both his wife and his mistress using a department-issued pager. (This was a few years ago, before smart phones were available.)

We wonder if part of the widespread agreement with the ruling has to do with the seamy nature of the private messages. If officials had not found any sexual explicit messages or evidence of infidelity but had instead uncovered a series of messages between the officer and physician about the ominous results of a biopsy, would people still insist he has no right to privacy?

Many news reports about the results are using headlines such as “Court rules no sexting at work.” But the titillation of the sexual content is irrelevant; what the Court ruling actually means is that any communication over an employer-issued device is subject to exposure.

This may be reasonable. After all, most federal employees earn enough that they can probably buy their own smart phones and plans, and conduct their personal business on their personal equipment. It's also fair to point out that spending significant time on personal matters at work, regardless of the equipment used, is taking time that you're supposed to be spending doing the work your employer pays you for.

However, it's also true that most people have complicated lives, with spouses, children, doctors and lenders with whom they must sometimes communicate during work hours. If you're sending sexually charged messages to your illicit lover using your work smart phone, you're naive to think you have any right to keep them from your employer. But that's also true if you're trying to work out a plan with your mortgage lender to prevent foreclosure...or lining up an appointment with a psychiatrist...or communicating with a teenage son about what will happen if he comes home drunk again before he turns 21.

Real life has a way of not dividing neatly into work and personal realms. The law needs to reflect that reality.

Do you agree? Take our poll or post a comment below.


 

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

Reader comments

Thu, Jun 24, 2010

Hasn't this subject been beaten to death? In typical media fashion, the more you focus on it, the more it will happen.

Wed, Jun 23, 2010 Mac

As a 34-yr government employee, the supposed life excuses expressed at the end of this article simply are not supported by author's summary comments in his last paragraph: "Real life has a way of not dividing neatly into work and personal realms. The law needs to reflect that reality." I believe no matter how you spin it, one should not expect to conduct personal business on employer provided equipment -- or else be prepared to face the consequences. After all, there can be no neater "division" than that. In my opinion, the court ruling has correctly reflected just that reality. No doubt there are exceptional situations or emergencies that are tolerated from time to time. But laws are supposed to exist to render sound legal principles, not invite unnecessary moral judgments from courts.

Wed, Jun 23, 2010 Puregoldj Washington, DC

Give me a break! It's not like this was an ambush. The first day on the job as a Federal employee or contractor, you are told that the computer or cell phone is not your property, it is the property of the government or the company, it is for government (maybe sometimes company) business use only, that you can be monitored, and there is no privacy. Therefore, if you are using the government or company computer or cellphone for sexualy explicit communications, you are BEGGING for trouble. Period. If I want to talk sexually explicit stuff, I have my own cellphone. If I want to look at sexually explicit websites, I have my own computer at home, and so do most other people. So don't complain if you do something idiotic and then get fired or disciplined! I don't feel sorry for you; you are a moron. Period!

Wed, Jun 23, 2010 David Webb

I agree completely with the Supreme Court's decision and, to me, the content in this particular case is irrelevant. Any personal communications I must make at work are done on my own personal resources. Misusing any type of company owned communications for personal use is the same as personal misuse of a company vehicle. To put it another way, if the company owns it, the company decides how it is to be used period.

Wed, Jun 23, 2010 Paul

If you work for the federal government, there is the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) which allows anybody to request all the emails and text messages of a federal employee using federal equiptment. The only thing not released under FOIA is items protected by national security. So if a federal employee uses goverment equipment to send email to their doctor or sexting, all that would be released.

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