Sanctioned Snooping

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on June 28, 2010

Does your district provide cell phones to employees?  A ruling by the U.S. Supreme on June 17, 2010 may impact you.  The court agreed unanimously that governmental agencies may access and read an employee’s text messages under certain circumstances.

The case that was brought to the Supreme Court involved a police officer in Ontario, California whose text messages were reviewed when department officials became concerned that SWAT team officers were using department-issued pagers for too many personal text messages.  And sure enough, in one month alone, of the 456 text messages sent or received by the officer in question, 400 were personal.

The city does have a policy stating that employees have no guaranteed right of privacy when using communication devices provided by the department, but officers had been told informally that their messages would not be audited as long as they paid for additional charges.  So the officer and three others sued the department for violating their constitutional right to privacy.  A lower court ruled in the officer’s favor, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision on the premise that the search itself was reasonable.

The decision is the court’s first related to Digital Age technologies and 4th amendment guards against unreasonable search and seizure.  While the court did not provide broad guidance on employees’ privacy rights, the decision did identify conditions that must be met before government agency may review an employee’s personal texts.  They are:
• The cell phone must be provided by the agency.
• The employee must be told in advance that any messages sent using the device may be monitored by management.
• There must be a legitimate work-related reason for reviewing the messages.

As increasing numbers of education agencies provide cell phones to some employees, it is critical that policies be created that outline acceptable use and privacy expectations.  It is equally important that these policies be enforced in an even-handed, consistent way.

How does your agency handle this issue?


Published by

Susan Brooks-Young

A former school administrator, Susan Brooks-Young is a prolific author, educational technology consultant, and member of the TICAL leadership cadre.

2 thoughts on “Sanctioned Snooping”

  1. The district I work for addressed this a few years ago as a response to an IRS ruling about taxable benefits. The district switched from providing phones to paying a stipend. The stipend then becomes part of your income which is taxable and the IRS was happy. The positive side effect is the phone is my phone not my districts, so have don’t have the issue of them controling how I use it.

  2. My district has the same policy as Steven’s. For awhile our district issued cell phones but the stipend method is cheaper for them. Also, I know personally I would rarely carry the district phone because I didnt want to keep track of two phones and I was therefore using my personal phone for school business anyways.

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