'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.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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