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

Supreme Court gears up to decide whether review of police officer's racy text messages was an invasion of privacy.

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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.