Sexting case draws reader fire

Our readers sound off on workplace privacy

It was way back in January 1999 when Scott McNealy, co-founder and then CEO of Sun Microsystems, offered his opinion on privacy issues.

"You have zero privacy anyway," McNealy said. "Get over it."

Government workers apparently have embraced this notion – at least where agency-issued laptop PCs, handheld devices and smart phones are concerned.

Our story on the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that the Ontario, Calif. police department had a right to review the text messages on a SWAT sergeant’s department pager drew a healthy dose of comments from readers. And, as with comments on our earlier coverage of the ‘sexting’ case, readers were mostly in agreement with the police department -- and now, with the Supreme Court.

Related stories:

Sexting case outcome changes the rules on workplace privacy

Where does government draw the line on sexting at work?

High court to settle ‘sexting’ at work case

Supreme Court opinion (PDF)

The court’s decision, which overturned an earlier appeals court decision in favor of the officer, was fairly narrow, in that it ruled that the department’s reason for examining the texts was valid, and did not violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Department officials had noticed that the number of text messages were exceeding monthly limits and was trying to see if its text contract should be expanded. That the sergeant got caught using most of his texts to send racy messages to his wife and mistress was incidental.

Readers, it seems, would go further than the court, saying that users of agency-issued devices have no reason to expect privacy and that the agency, which is paying for the devices and the service, has a right to monitor their use. (in the specific case before the Court, the city and the police officers had worked out a deal whereby officers who exceeded the cap for text messages under the flat rate would pay the additional charges themselves. That system faltered, however, because it meant an officer had to collect the money every month, which became a tedious task.)

A reader at Fort Monmouth, N.J., said the answer is obvious to Defense Department users. “Dept of Defense (DoD) has a privacy banner that is loaded when you boot up your PC that states ‘This is a United States DoD computer and all transactions are subject to monitoring.’ The individual did not own his beeper.....and he is ignorant to even believe his privacy was violated ... he stole money from the city by using his beeeper for personal matters which went over the contractual amount. If the courts rule any other way, you have to wonder about our legal system.” 

In fact, rather and expecting privacy, several readers said they assume the opposite. “If I'm using an employer issued laptop/phone/PDA, I don't expect that anything done on that device would be private,” wrote one reader. “I actually expect that anything done on that device would be monitored by the employer.”

“If I use a device paid for by my employer, then I would expect that they would have the right to see what I was doing,” agreed RayW, “especially if it was costing them extra money in overages.”

A reader in Nashville, Tenn., claimed to be ahead of McNealy in saying privacy was a thing of the past: “I was telling co-workers as early as 1998 that there should be no expectation of privacy while communicating on any employer-owned equipment (computers via email, cell phones, anything that communicates). If it truly must be private, use your own equipment and communication service (cell service, mobile/Wi-Fi, etc.). For anyone to see/expose any communications on equipment owned by and services contracted and paid for by individuals should require a court-ordered ‘tap.’ Otherwise, employee communications on company equipment and services should be considered as if you were putting it on a billboard on Main Street.”

Local County Government Worker Upstate New York also backs the court: “I agree with this ruling. Too many government employees utilize these communications devices as their own when it is their employer’s (phones, PDAs, computers, etc). There needs to be a clear-cut line between what is business and what is personal. The employer issued the device. Since it is theirs to pay the bill it is also theirs to monitor. I'm curious how this ruling would affect an incident where a FOIA request was made on the government employee. Could the public potentially obtain the records too? Shouldn't they be able to since they (the taxpayer) are flipping the bill? Then maybe the employees would begin to act like professional adults instead of children with toys.”

And Blondie agreed that properly using any communications device is just part of being a professional – and surviving in government service: “A wife and a mistress? Sounds like the guy was very busy. All kidding aside, his behavior was dumb, dumb, dumb. I've seen two GS-15s relieved for pilfering government property, cheating on expense reports, etc. My mentor told me, don't cheat on the little things because if someone is looking for a reason to get rid of you, that's a giveaway. Keep your timesheet, your government cell phone and computer, and your travel voucher above reproach. He also told me, clerks and admin people rule the world in federal nice to your support people and don't make them your enemy unless they are incompetent, then you can't afford to keep them. He was so right on both accounts.”

In short, get over it.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Jun 22, 2010

I think you have to realize that all the hand helds can be monitored, anytime, anyplace. Professionals must realize this fact and act accordingly. Using a City provided device to cheat on your wife with a fellow employee? What were you thinking?

Tue, Jun 22, 2010 James Garko Washington DC

I think there is a line of pragmatism here. I don't use my work issued laptop or phone for these things. So, I carry dual devices, so my private life and work life are separate. What does that mean? When I am on personal time, which machines get taken along? Which do I pay most attention to? Which do I pay attention to within "work to the rule?" It's not the Government Machines. Does that really help the taxpayers. The US taxpayers have not financed equipment on which I am sexting or anything else. Sooo... They get less attention and focus than if I could dual-purpose the machinery. I think busting an employee for texting on a Government phone...especially if there was a legitimate plan in place to pay for private rude. It is like saying verbally "people working long shifts can park in these reserved spaces" then towing their car because there is a Reserved sign. Sure, it's the letter of the law, but it goes against reasonable expectations of good faith on the part of the employer. I have no doubt this guy could have afforded a separate phone. He was lulled into a false sense of security by being offered the option to pay to dual purpose his Government equipment and also run his private life on it. He trusted that the people around him would be courteous and professional and no go snooping into his private business. And he got burned. Lesson? Leave work in the workplace and in your pocket and have your personal device be the one you pay attention to. Is that really good for the taxpayers. I doubt it. Until then? Smart employees will "dual source" their machinery. Long term solution? Stipends to buy personal equipment, and secure thumb drives and logins for accessing work? That's been seriously proposed by some GSA leadership. In the end most of us would like our lives integrated on one or two devices, and our work will get more attention if the device we do it on can be the one which we also use in our private lives.

Tue, Jun 22, 2010

Had to deal with this very issue recently, on a Satt phone issued to a fellow over in the sandbox, who ran up $1500 in overage charges calling a couple of non-work numbers back home.As an unoffical policy, we turn a blind eye to a little personal usage, especially for people in a forward area. But this guy went way over the line. Sent a gentle reminder through back channels to the command types over there, and so far it has not happened again. We did have one guy on long-term TDY with a company cell phone who ran up 10k in charges- senior manangement let him off with reimbursing the govt.

Tue, Jun 22, 2010 Tman Virginia

Users have no right to privacy while using devices owned by the employer, period. If you are using a personal device in the workplace, you do have a right to privacy in this case (doing personal activities on the employers time, however, may be another matter).

Tue, Jun 22, 2010

The fact that such expense was made to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court show what little common sense people have. To the Court of Appeals, they should be challenged with "what were you thinking" and in the long run bill them not the taxpayer for these costs.

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