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Supreme Court Says Gov't Employee Texts Not Private 263

Posted by timothy
from the where-to-draw-the-line dept.
e9th writes "The Supreme Court, in a 9-0 ruling, has decided that government employers are entitled to examine all text messages sent with government-provided devices, even if the employee has agreed to pay for any excess message charges out of his own pocket. While the ruling only applies to government employees (at all levels), it may give private sector employees something to think about when using employer-provided devices."
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Supreme Court Says Gov't Employee Texts Not Private

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  • Simple. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mark4ST (249650) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:16PM (#32604824) Homepage
    Couldn't an employee just use their own phone to send private texts?
  • Sounds fair to me. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Hatta (162192) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:22PM (#32604906) Journal

    SMS is broadcast over the air unencrypted. There should be no expectation of privacy.

  • Not so simple (Score:5, Informative)

    by CheeseTroll (696413) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:28PM (#32604984)

    My first reaction was like most here - it's an employer-provided device, so why would you expect privacy? However, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act says that while employers have the right to monitor employee's phone conversations, they must stop if/when they realize that the conversation is personal, not business.

    http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs7-work.htm#2a [privacyrights.org]

    So this is a mobile phone, not a landline, and it's texting not talking, which just complicates an already murky law.

  • Re:And? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Shakrai (717556) * on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:29PM (#32605004) Journal

    No, the Government only compels them to keep the pen-register data, i.e: who you called/texted and when. I am unaware of any law or regulation that compels them to retain copies of the actual messages. If you have a citation for such a law in the United States I would be most interested in reading it.

  • Re:Simple. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Shakrai (717556) * on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:35PM (#32605098) Journal

    We have employer issued phones at our workplace with unlimited plans. Making personal calls or sending texts during non-work hours does nothing to change the final bill, so we've been told to use them for our own personal use as well. We're required to have the phones & be "on call." Why would I want to pay for a second phone I don't need?

    Technically your employer is supposed to figure out the percentage of business calls vs personal calls and either bill you the difference or include it on your W-2 as a taxable benefit. Few employers actually bother to do this but it is required by the US tax code.

    As for "why" you would want to pay for one, I think the headline answers that question. If you value your privacy then you should be willing to pay to ensure it. If employers can monitor your text messages why not your voice conversations?

  • by Shakrai (717556) * on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:39PM (#32605148) Journal

    Actually it really doesn't. Old fashioned cordless telephones were rarely encrypted but it was still a violation of Federal law to monitor them. It was also made illegal to sell scanners that were capable of tuning to the frequencies that they used.

  • Re:And? (Score:2, Informative)

    by AsmCoder8088 (745645) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:40PM (#32605164)
    While you are correct that the best bet is to simply not use the department-issued device for personal texts, the lieutenant specifically stated that the text messages would not be audited. Then they changed their minds and started auditing them. He had a reasonable expectation of privacy, it would seem.

    The oral argument at the Supreme Court hearing from both sides can be read here [supremecourt.gov]

  • by mayko (1630637) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:47PM (#32605238)
    After someone like Kwame Kilpatrick (former mayor of Detroit) exchanged 14,000 text messages [wikipedia.org] with his chief of staff (both married to other people), most of which were related to their sexual affair with one another and others which were about illegally firing another government employee and I believe a bribery scandal (this has been local news here for a while), I'm not surprised they are finally doing this.

    What I'd really like to know, is how the hell someone could send 14k text messages between September/October 2002 and April/May 2003. All the illegal and corrupt stuff aside... If that time period is accurate that means they were exchanging over 50 text messages a day... what the fuck.
  • by AndrewNeo (979708) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:57PM (#32605374) Homepage

    Too late! [wikipedia.org]

  • Re:Simple. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Red Flayer (890720) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @02:59PM (#32605404) Journal

    Technically your employer is supposed to figure out the percentage of business calls vs personal calls and either bill you the difference or include it on your W-2 as a taxable benefit. Few employers actually bother to do this but it is required by the US tax code.

    Actually, it's still under debate... the IRS has not issued a final ruling on inclusion of company-paid cell phone charges as taxable fringe benefits.

    Companies are not required to itemize charges and bill and/or include as taxable fringe; they can instead use some flat percentage.

    But in practice, the IRS doesn't pursue the cell phone issue much -- if there are a lot of other taxable fringe that is escaping tax, they may include it, but if that's your only questionable item, they'll let it go.

    I'm not your tax accountant or tax lawyer, so don't take what I've written as sound advice. It's just my experience with dealing with the IRS on this issue for my past couple employers.

  • by OrangeTide (124937) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @04:09PM (#32606174) Homepage Journal

    we just kind of assume employers occasionally audit the use of company property. That includes physical things likes computers, pagers, cellphones. And virtual things like company networks(what use internally), VPN usage, company internet gateways(what sites you access externally), company IM services(jabber, lotus sametime, whatever), emails, and file servers.

    It is not unusual for an IT department to look at your back-ups and question your judgment in filling your work computer's backup folder with personal MP3s.

    Just because you take a phone and laptop home every night doesn't mean it is your personal property.

    it just seems obvious that government employees would have to operate under the same environment as the rest of us. Maybe if the government operated like they can fail if they don't behave in a competitive way some of our problems would just go away. That's just wild conjecture on my part though.

  • by Cro Magnon (467622) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @04:26PM (#32606328) Homepage Journal

    But I do have a work laptop. And there's a lot that I won't do on it that I do all the time on my home machine. The fact is, my work machine isn't really MY machine! It's their's! So, I do my business on their crap, and have fun on my own crap.

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