Labor and Employment

9th Circuit to Employers: Don't Look at Workers' Text Messages

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Venturing into what a federal appeals court panel described as a new frontier of electronic communications law, the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decided today that employers have no right to read their employees’ text messages without their consent.

Plus, even if employers pay for the service, providers are prohibited by the federal Stored Communications Act from releasing the text message contents to them, a three-judge panel held. The ruling came in the case of an Ontario, Calif., police officer whose boss got his text messages from the service provider and had them reviewed to see if personal communications were causing him to exceed his alloted service level, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The panel said that reasonable expectations of privacy vary depending on the specific facts and circumstances, and it indicated that the availability of other, less intrusive, ways for the police department to monitor the amount of text-messaging services that the officer was using played a role in the decision.

“The extent to which the Fourth Amendment provides protection for the contents of electronic communications in the Internet Age is an open question,” writes Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw in the opinion.. “The recently minted standard of electronic communications via e-mails, text messages and other means opens a new frontier in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that has been little explored.”

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