In a blow to privacy advocates, the Supreme Court last week unanimously ruled that supervisors can snoop on text messages sent by public employees on government-issued pagers, at least in cases where the workers may be breaking office rules. The case involved Ontario, Calif., SWAT team Sgt Jeff Quon, whose boss suspected him of using his text pager mostly for personal purposes. The police chief checked and found that Quon was using the device to conduct sexually explicit exchanges with both his wife and his mistress. Do bosses have a legitimate right to snoop into their employees' communications gadgets?
Of course they do: "This ruling shouldn't come as a shock," says Don Huebscher in the Eau Claire, Wisc., Leader-Telegram. "If you're on company time using company computers and phones," it's the boss' right and duty to make sure you're using the devices for work, and "not excessively for personal stuff that should be done off the clock." If you didn't know that before, "consider yourself warned."
"Big Brother is... reading"
Don't read too much into this ruling: "SWAT officer Jeff Quon is out of luck," says Kashmir Hill in True/Slant, and so are other public employees. But the justices went out of their way to say this ruling wouldn't set a broad precedent on workplace privacy. As Justice Anthony Kennedy put it, technology is developing rapidly, and so are society's ideas on what constitutes proper behavior in the workplace. So until the law becomes more clear, don't assume the same rules apply for all forms of digital communication, or for employees of private companies.
"Supreme Court hesitantly rules government worker’s text messages are not private"
Let's hope the court knows where to draw the line: Just like their counterparts in government, "private employees should think twice when doing the same thing on office equipment," say the editors of The New York Times, "because many employers maintain the right to inspect all such messages." But that should be as far as it goes. In 1967, the Supreme Court decided that Americans "have a right to privacy in a closed telephone booth," even though it's in public. The same should apply to our communication using computers and cell phones.
"Privacy in the cellular age"