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Watch that gmail account at work – someone else might want to watch too

Submitted by on Monday, 14 September 2009 No Comment

With the exception of the ever-dwindling numbers in the “I don’t use email” set, most of us know by now not to send personal messages from our work accounts.

Sure, we might slip once in a while and jot a quick note. But for the most part, the serious personal emails sent the office these days are from personal accounts.

What? You didn’t know people do that? You must be the last person on Earth who hasn’t seen someone scurrying to call up another application to mask that tell-tale gmail page as a boss walks past.

And it turns out, that might not even be safe. At least not so far in Wisconsin, where a man went on what he admits was a fishing trip to see if teachers were using their work email accounts to discuss a school board election.

The way he phrased his request – he asked for all messagesĀ  sent “from the computer [the teachers] use[d] during their school work day,” according to eschoolnews.com - landed him one whale of a fish.

The school district took him literally, turning over every message teachers sent that day, even if they were sent from personal accounts. Teachers in turn sued the school district, and the case now is before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

There are lawyers who think the teachers might not have much of a case – they’re required to sign a computer use policy that clearly states their emails might be monitored.

Still, the teachers are arguing that personal is just that.

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Judges in a number of states – as recently as last month in Washington – have ruled that anyone who files a public records request can ask for the contents of an entire government computer hard drive if they want.

Phone records – including calls made from cells – long have been subject to public release.

Why should email records be any different?

It’s daunting from a privacy perspective, not just for public employees but for the rest of us as well. Clearly, any business has the right to inspect its own computers, including the one you just used to send a scathing rant about your evil boss. Will it make any difference, though, whether you sent that email from your work or personal account?

There’s still a lot of case law to be established here, a lot of legal gray area.

Anyone who assumes their emails are private under any circumstances is crazy anyway – just ask South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. The electronic trail is just too long and complicated to make the records go away easily.

But the Wisconsin case does add another layer of complication, another possibility of which workers need to be aware.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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