Do hosted services cloud workplace privacy issues?

Reader shares his take on upcoming Supreme Court case

Earlier this month the Supreme Court announced that it would decide a case that could establish what privacy rights, if any, an employee can expect when using a company-issued communication device.

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The case accepted by the court involves a police officer whose naughty texts to a girlfriend where discovered by a less-than-amused chief. My own take on the matter is that anyone expecting privacy rights under such circumstances is likely to be mistaken and all but certain to be disappointed by the upcoming Supreme Court ruling.

Reader Jon Chorney has some additional thoughts regarding a potential factor that I had failed to address, namely the legal complications posed by hosted services. Chorney writes:

When the case involving the police department and the officers' expectation of privacy appeared, I was still working as a sysadmin at an accounting firm and was considering outsourcing our e-mail system. This case is what removed any doubts I had about keeping things in house.

You see, when a company hosts its own messaging servers, there is no question of enforcing any properly promulgated policies regarding usage of the system. Privacy is a matter of policy: If I as the employer say there can be no expectation of privacy using my own system, there isn't any.

However, if, as in the case at hand, I have contracted with an outside service to provide communication services, things get a lot more complicated. Apparently, even though I, as employer, have contracted with the service provider, there are very real questions as to whether the provider can give me messages that are not between my employees without infringing on their privacy.

This is, of course, disastrous. If upheld, it would mean that if my company used Google (or my ISP) to host my messaging functions, any of my employees could, with impunity, ignore any policies concerning electronic communication I had so long as they were communicating with someone outside my firm.

As of the moment, as I understand it, you can only be sure of a legal right to access employee messages if you host the server yourself.

Fortunately, I retired last year and so it's not my problem. However, I do have sympathy for those who will encounter the unintended consequences of what seemed like a good idea at the time.

It will be interesting to see what role, if any, these considerations have in the court's ruling.

(I'm on vacation, by the way, so posts will be sporadic at best until next week.)


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