The U.S. Supreme Court is set to answer a vexing question prompted by technology: How much privacy can a worker expect when he or she uses an employer's electronic device to send personal messages? This case involves police officers using government-issued pagers, but the ruling could set the workplace standard everywhere. While workers don't give up their Fourth Amendment rights when they come to the office, employers should not be expected to underwrite workers' private communications.
The court will consider a case from Ontario, Calif., where police Sgt. Jeff Quon and three other officers argued in federal court that their privacy was invaded and federal electronic communications law was violated when the police chief reviewed the contents of text messages they had sent on police-provided pagers. The officers won at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which concluded that operating procedures, and the lack of a formal policy, gave them a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The officers were told the messages would not be audited unless they used more than 25,000 characters a month. They had the option of paying for going beyond the limit, or the department would review messages to see if they were work-related. Quon and the others paid the additional charges.
Quon's supervisor tired of collecting payments. The chief then ordered records from the pager provider and discovered Quon and others had repeatedly sent personal messages, some sexually explicit. Given little weight by the appellate court, however, was a city policy acknowledging that use of police computers, including those used for accessing e-mail and the Internet, were subject to monitoring. Common sense dictates that when a new technology was introduced, similar expectations apply. The court also said the pager provider broke federal law by releasing records without a warrant.
Federal appellate Judge Sandra S. Ikuta, dissenting from the 9th Circuit's ruling, warned that her colleagues had violated "the dictates of reason and common sense" and had hobbled "government employers from managing their work forces." The trial court also ruled against the employees.
But as long workers are informed their communications could be monitored, employers should be free to do so. And it's unreasonable not to allow employers access to the communications accounts they contract for. Privacy is a fragile thing as technology advances, but the Supreme Court should make clear that workers shouldn't expect it if they're using their employer's device to communicate private messages.