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To: CC: BCC: Whether Your Employer's On It, He Or She May Be Reading It

It's big news on the other coast: administration at Harvard University searched the emails of 16 members of the faculty. Administrators were trying to root out a leak; the university was embroiled in a cheating scandal last fall and there was reason to believe that the press had an inside source within the school that was providing information about how the scandal was being handled.

According to Harvard's own privacy policy, however, the university had to provide notice prior to or shortly after searching faculty - or its employees' - emails. Does this amount to an invasion of an employee's privacy? Does existing employment law regarding personal messages sent on work computers protect an employee from this type of search or disclosure?

Whether an email search amounts to an invasion of your privacy as an employee is typically a two-part question:

  • Did you have a reasonable expectation of privacy? Most employers require employees to sign an acknowledgement that their use of the company email or internet is subject to monitoring
  • Did your employer have a work-related reason for the search?

A case out of California regarding an employees' right to privacy in personal messages made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The employee was a police officer - a public employee - who had sent personal texts from his work pager. His employee read the messages and the officer sued. In that case the Court held that it was reasonable for the employer to read the police officer's texts because the employer wanted to know if he was going over his monthly allotment.

In other words, despite the officer thinking his employer wasn't reading his messages and expected that they were private, his employer was allowed to read them anyway.

If you are accessing your personal email account from a work computer, your employer may also be able to read through those emails as well, although the Stored Communications Act of 1986 provides some protections.

Source: Slate, "Can Your Boss Read Your Email?" March 11, 2013

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