You’ve probably seen friends, coworkers, family members, and strangers glued to their "smart phone" of choice as if it is somehow an appendage. The use/addiction to these items is increasing as we become more and more mobile. A couple of interesting stats courtesy of CNN:
A Pew study found in January that 80 percent of American adults have cell phones and 30 percent of them access the internet on their phones. In 2000, 50 percent of American adults used cell phones, according to a Gallup Poll, and phones rarely supported access to the web.
More than 28 percent of employers fired a worker for e-mail misuse in 2007, compared to 14 percent in 2001, according to the American Management Association.
We can text, email (from both work and hotmail accounts), tweet, and post on Facebook from these devices. Some of the devices may actually be provided by our employer or the employer may pay for data/wireless service. So does an employer have the right to see those texts, posts, or emails?
The United States Supreme Court is considering a California case where the Ontario, California Police Department reviewed sexually explicit text messages that a police officer sent from a police owned electronic device. The Ninth Circuit previously held the police department’s actions violated the officer’s privacy rights because its actions constituted an illegal search and seizure. The case was argued before the Supreme Court on Monday. As usual, SCOTUSBLOG has an excellent analysis of the case and play-by-play from the oral argument.
Many think the Court will limit its opinion and any ruling will have limited implications. Nevertheless, employers and employees should be cautious. Employers have the right to look at company email in most circumstances, that seems to be accepted. As previously discussed here, whether employers can review gmail or hotmail emails that emanate from a company computer or mobile device is unclear. The same is probably true for texting or social media posting. Now, the line becomes blurrier if the mobile device is owned by the employee but the service is paid for by the employer.
Employers must proceed with caution and on a case by case basis before accessing these types of communications. Of course, they could be very important in situations where an employee may be taking trade secrets or preparing to violate a non-compete agreement. As is a recurring theme on this this blog, employees should assume that any electronic communication may ultimately be published to the world. Though emails and texts are more convenient, phone calls and face to face meetings are still an option.