High court: Go ahead, search cop's sexy texting

Jun 17, 2010

(AP) -- The Supreme Court had a common-sense message Thursday for workers with cell phones and other gadgets provided by their employers: Use your own cell phone if you've got something to text that you don't want your boss to read.

The justices unanimously upheld a police department's search of an officer's personal, sometimes sexually explicit, messages on a government-owned pager, saying the search did not violate his constitutional rights.

The court did not lay down any broad rules about the privacy of workplace electronic communications in a world of rapidly changing technology. But the opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy did make clear that governments can check to be sure their employees are following the rules.

The case grew out of a search of the text messages sent by a police sergeant in Ontario, Calif., Jeff Quon, on his department pager. The department discovered many personal messages, including some that were sexually explicit, when it decided to audit text message usage to see whether SWAT team officers were using their pagers too often for personal reasons.

Kennedy noted that in one month alone, Quon sent or received 456 messages during work hours - and nearly 400 were personal.

Quon and three other people who sent him messages sued. They contended the search violated their constitutional rights.

Many employers tell workers there is no guarantee of privacy in anything sent over their company- or government-provided computers, cell phones or pagers.

Ontario has a similar policy. But a police official also informally told officers that no one would audit their text messages if the officers personally paid for charges above a monthly allowance.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the informal policy was enough to give the officers a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in their text messages and establish that their constitutional rights had been violated.

The high court reversed that ruling. It did not decide whether Quon had a reasonable expectation of privacy, but said that even if he did, the search itself was reasonable.

But Kennedy expressed the justices' unease about dealing with privacy concerns in the computer age.

In a case from the 1960s, he said, "The court relied on its own knowledge and experience to conclude that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a telephone booth. It is not so clear that courts at present are on so sure a ground."

Kennedy said it is true that many employers accept or tolerate personal communications on company time and equipment. But he suggested that employees who want to avoid the potential embarrassment of having those communications revealed might "want to purchase and pay for their own" cell phones and other devices.

Christopher Wolf, an expert on workplace privacy and partner at the Hogan Lovells law firm, said the decision made clear that "if the employer is doing something for a legitimate business purpose, it's not likely to be unreasonable."

Joshua Dressler, an Ohio State University law professor, said the court probably was wise to rule narrowly.

"With modern technology quickly moving in directions the justices could not have imagined even a decade ago, it is increasingly obvious that the Supreme Court will need to determine the limits of government surveillance of our cell phone conversations, text messages, and other nonwire transmissions," Dressler said.

The case is City of Ontario v. Quon, 08-1332

Explore further: Computer writes its own fables

More information: Court ruling: http://tinyurl.com/2d44jbv

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Court takes up public employees' privacy case

Apr 19, 2010

(AP) -- The Supreme Court appears likely to rule against public employees who claimed a local government violated their privacy by reading racy text messages they sent on their employers' account.

Court Denies Vonage Bid for Patent Case Retrial

May 04, 2007

A U.S. appeals court denies a request by Internet phone company Vonage Holdings that it order a retrial in the patent infringement case brought against it by Verizon Communications.

Ariz. court rules records law covers 'metadata'

Oct 29, 2009

(AP) -- Hidden data embedded in electronic public records must be disclosed under Arizona's public records law, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a case that attracted interest from media and government organizations.

Recommended for you

Berkeley team explores sound for indoor localization

2 hours ago

The global positioning system, or GPS, has its limitations—namely, it cannot work indoors. Potential solutions for indoor positioning continue to fire up the imaginations of scientists. The latest news ...

Tesla loss widens as it ramps up expansion plan

3 hours ago

US electric automaker Tesla Motors reported Thursday a widening loss in the past quarter amid record revenues as it ramped up plans for a giant battery plant for future vehicles.

CIA director reverses himself on Senate spying

3 hours ago

For months, CIA Director John Brennan had stood firm in his insistence that the CIA had little to be ashamed of after searching the computers of the Senate Intelligence Committee. His defiant posture quickly ...

Tesla says decision on battery factory months away

4 hours ago

(AP)—Electric car maker Tesla Motors said Thursday that it is preparing a site near Reno, Nevada, as a possible location for its new battery factory, but is still evaluating other sites.

User comments : 0