Are Text Messages Sent From Your Work Phone Private?

How would you feel if your boss received a copy of every text message you sent from your work-issued cell phone? It might make you think twice before hitting that send button. It's an issue with such huge implications that the Supreme Court recently announced it will hear a case on the topic.

It stems from a group of police officers in Ontario, California who sent some sexually charged texts that were then read by their boss without their knowledge. The employees sued the department on the grounds of unreasonable search and seizure, saying they believed what happened on their phone stayed on their phones.

The city said not so fast - and pointed out its electronic communications policy, which said it "reserves the right to monitor and log all network activity including e-mail and Internet use, with or without notice." The case went to court, and an initial ruling sided with the officers. The judge said they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their texts, and were led to believe by their supervisor that their phones could also be used for personal reasons.

Interesting, because at most jobs I've had it's pretty clear that whatever you do on your company issued equipment is fair game for prying corporate eyes. Many of us have grown accustom to assuming that our email, web surfing and phone calls can be tapped, logged and monitored - and rarely find out if this actually happens.

The big issue here is our increasing mobility and ever-expanding electronic communications options. A precedent set by the Supreme Court in this case will impact employers and employees across the nation.

Already, there are precedents for other forms of workplace communications. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has some good information on what is and isn't fair game.

When it comes to phone calls, employers are generally allowed to listen in for performance and quality control, but they're supposed to stop if they realize it's a personal call. That's assuming you can make personal calls on the company's dime. If your workplace specifically prohibits personal calls, they can listen to their hearts' content.

Employers are also generally free to watch what you're doing on your computer - this includes the sites you're surfing, the keys you're pressing and even the amount of time you're sitting idle.

Email and voicemail are also generally not private, and companies keep a record of these items in most cases long after they're deleted.

For now, sending and receiving texts still puts you in murky privacy waters - a ruling is expected in the Supreme Court case by June.

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