June 21, 2010    /    by

Personal Privacy at Work: Supreme Court Reinforces Status Quo

In a unanimous decision last week, the US Supreme Court rejected the privacy claims of an employee who was texting using employer-provided equipment.  According ...

In a unanimous decision last week, the US Supreme Court rejected the privacy claims of an employee who was texting using employer-provided equipment.  According to the Washington Times,

"The ruling essentially maintains the status quo of allowing employers to implement policies preventing employees from using company communication equipment for personal use.

But Bart Lazar, an intellectual-property lawyer whose expertise includes privacy and security involving electronic communications, said the narrowness of the ruling leaves open scenarios in which employees could keep private communications made on company equipment."

The ruling was widely covered by both newspapers and technology magazines. Here are a few examples:

LA Times - Supreme Court rules in favor of California police chief who read employee's texts

Southern CA Public Radio - No sexting on the job!: Supreme Court upholds search of text messages at work in City of Ontario v. Quon  

Computerworld - Supreme Court ruling lets employers view worker text messages with reason

USA Today - Justices   uphold  search  of  officer's  texts

Washington Post - Supreme Court rules on employer monitoring of cellphone, computer conversations

For other similar topics and stories, you can visit the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

So what does this Supreme Court ruling mean for government technology executives today? In my view, this ruling is very important, since it reconfirms the status quo in a unanimous decision - which is pretty unusual for the Supreme Court. This (admittedly narrow) ruling is unlikely to be overturned anytime soon. So here are a few suggestions:

1)             Go back and check your acceptable use policy. Do you specifically declare that state and/or local employees and contractors have no presumption of privacy when working on government networks (with government - issued technology)?

2)              Is the policy clearly explained and available to all employees? What training is in place?

3)             Do you use a splash screen which lists the policy as employees are logging onto the network?

In Michigan, we are currently updating many of our policies for social networking and other new online situations. However, our acceptable use policy has contained these three basic elements (listed above) since at least 2003. But while we have further to go over the next year in modifying our policies and training, it seems to me that every state and local government needs to reaffirm these basics policy elements right now.  The federal government should do the same as well.

What are your thoughts on this new ruling - which reaffirms the status quo on workplace privacy?