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Question
Hi There,

I left the office on Friday and left my personal Gmail account up on my office computer. My boss advised me when I came into the office this morning that he had gone through all of my emails - back to August 2012 and further (today is 1/3/2013) specifically to investigate whether or not I had been applying for other employment. He brought up emails that I had sent my sister (they had nothing to do with other employment and he would have had to go through several pages - not just the first page open on the screen to see these). I feel completely violated and suggested to him that when he saw the email open on the computer, he should have simply closed it however he said that since it was company property, he had the right to dig through as much of it as he wanted. Can this be right? Do I have any recourse?

I live in Georgia.

Cathy

Answer
Courts have found that employers are generally free to read employee email messages, as long as there's a valid business purpose for doing so.

These days, many companies reinforce these rights by adopting email policies telling employees that their email isn't private and that the company is monitoring email messages. Some companies also require employees to sign a form acknowledging that their email isn't private.

Even if your employer doesn't have an email policy, it still probably has the legal right to read employee email messages sent using its equipment and network.

If the company takes steps to protect the privacy of email (by providing a system that allows messages to be designated "confidential" or creating a private password known only to the employee, for example) or if the company assures employees that email is private, you might have a stronger expectation of privacy in the messages covered by these rules and therefore stronger legal protection if the employer reads private emails.

However, most courts to consider the issue have decided in favor of employers, particularly if the company has a compelling reason to read email (for example, to investigate a harassment claim). This includes the United States Supreme Court, which held in 2010 that the city of Ontario, California, could read private text messages a member of its SWAT team sent -- and received -- on his city-issued pager.  

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Dan Pepper

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I can answer questions regarding all forms of Internet, technology, and multimedia law. Specific areas may include: website terms and conditions, privacy policies, copyright, trademark, domain name disputes, software and technology licensing, and website and software development agreements. More information can be found at informationlaw.com.

Experience

I've practiced law since 1994, representing dozens of ecommerce, Internet, and software companies.

Organizations
NJ State Bar Association PA State Bar Association American Bar Association American Corporate Counsel Association Internet & Computer Law Committee of the New Jersey State Bar Association Somerset County Business Partnership Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Licensing Executives Society Free Speech Coalition Board of Advisors, Stevens Institute of Technology Communications

Education/Credentials
BA, Political Science; JD.

Past/Present Clients
Oracle Corporation, BEA Systems

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