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.

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