Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Email and Texting Privacy: User Beware

In 24 hour 7 day a week online communication systems, participants using e mail and texting may forget that the information and photos they regularly send out may be seen by people they never thought would view the material.

A highly publicized case in point would be the recent events surrounding Tiger Woods. The Daily Beast reported Wood's purported mistress has text messages and voicemail from Woods. The source believes that some of them contain expressions of real affection from Woods—perhaps even professing love to her or mentioning that he was considering leaving his wife. Such disclosures would likely be a marriage-ender for Woods.

In less time than it takes to write this blog, the news and tabloid machinery acquired and published both personal and embarrassing voicemail and text messages claimed to be authored by Tiger. You may ask yourself why this case would be of any concern to you since you might not be a public figure known all over the world. Consider the case being weighed by the U.S.Supreme Court. At issue in the case accepted by the high court is ones privacy expectation for texting.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to take its first look at workplace privacy in more than 20 years, granting review in the case of a California city whose police department read one of its officers’ text messages.

A federal appeals court ruled in June 2008 that a wireless company had violated the officer’s rights by revealing messages, some of them sexually explicit, that he had sent to co-workers. Police officials in San Bernardino County had also violated his rights by reading them.

The Supreme Court denied the company’s appeal Monday but agreed to take up the city’s appeal. A ruling is likely by June 2010.

The case has “potentially very broad application in the area of new technology,’’ said Kent Richland, a lawyer for the city.

What the court must decide, said Dieter Dammeier, a lawyer for the officer and several of his colleagues, is whether text messages are more like e-mails — which an employer can examine when they’re sent on company computers — or like phone calls, which are generally shielded from surveillance even on company equipment.

These days, Dammeier said, “a text message is pretty much the same as having a telephone conversation. … There shouldn’t be less of a privacy expectation.’’

But Richland said the police officers had no reason to assume their text messages would be private, because the city had a policy that allowed it to read all communications on city-owned equipment.

The case concerns only government employees, but the court could issue a ruling that affects the private sector as well.

Even if the Supreme Court comes down on the side of the officer in this case, the message that your on line activities and texting can be viewed by others is clear. Using e mails and texting on work or personal equipment opens up a host of problems if the information you post is something you'd rather keep private. The obvious question you should ask yourself is: If I post this, would I want the whole world to see it?