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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 ...

by / June 21, 2010

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?




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Dan Lohrmann Chief Security Officer & Chief Strategist at Security Mentor Inc.

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.

During his distinguished career, he has served global organizations in the public and private sectors in a variety of executive leadership capacities, receiving numerous national awards including: CSO of the Year, Public Official of the Year and Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leader.
Lohrmann led Michigan government’s cybersecurity and technology infrastructure teams from May 2002 to August 2014, including enterprisewide Chief Security Officer (CSO), Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) roles in Michigan.

He currently serves as the Chief Security Officer (CSO) and Chief Strategist for Security Mentor Inc. He is leading the development and implementation of Security Mentor’s industry-leading cyber training, consulting and workshops for end users, managers and executives in the public and private sectors. He has advised senior leaders at the White House, National Governors Association (NGA), National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO), U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), federal, state and local government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, small businesses and nonprofit institutions.

He has more than 30 years of experience in the computer industry, beginning his career with the National Security Agency. He worked for three years in England as a senior network engineer for Lockheed Martin (formerly Loral Aerospace) and for four years as a technical director for ManTech International in a US/UK military facility.

Lohrmann is the author of two books: Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web and BYOD for You: The Guide to Bring Your Own Device to Work. He has been a keynote speaker at global security and technology conferences from South Africa to Dubai and from Washington, D.C., to Moscow.

He holds a master's degree in computer science (CS) from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a bachelor's degree in CS from Valparaiso University in Indiana.

Follow Lohrmann on Twitter at: @govcso

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