Should your boss be allowed to read your personal texts?

I guess your immediate reaction to that question is “no”. But what if your mobile phone is supplied by your boss? Where are the boundaries then? Should your employer be able to access your personal communications if they’re the ones footing the bill for it?

The US Supreme Court will be looking at this very issue.  For the first time it will rule on whether employees have a right to privacy when they send text messages on phones and pagers supplied by their employers.  The case involves public employees but reports say the ruling could have a spill-on effect to the private workplace.

It all started in California, where a police officer had his text messages — many of them sexually explicit — read by the police chief. Read more about the story here.

It’s an issue that’s surfaced before about the rights of people using their work email accounts to send personal emails.

Toni comments on this website: “If you are using a company bought/paid for cell phone, then I see no expectation of privacy”

An anonymous poster writes on the Computerworld site: “There is no PRIVACY. Get over it. Already. Like, what? It’s 2010 already?”

Do Toni and anonymous have a point?

Do you — like millions of people around the world — have a work-issued phone? What expectations of privacy do you have with your texts? Where do draw the line? And what about those of you who are employers? If you’re the one issuing the phones and paying the charges, do you have the right to access messages?  – especially if you want to check an usually high phone bill.

40 Responses to “Should your boss be allowed to read your personal texts?”

  1. 1 Jon D.
    December 15, 2009 at 16:05

    That’s an easy question to answer. T

  2. 2 pattin in cape coral
    December 15, 2009 at 16:08

    If your boss is supplying the phone and footing the bill, you should not have an expectation of privacy. If you want to keep your communications private, pay for your own phone, and in this day and age you don’t really know how private that is either.

  3. 3 Jon D.
    December 15, 2009 at 16:09

    That’s an easy question to answer. The phone is theirs. So, yes, they should have access to the information. This may even go further if you work for a government agency (in the Unites States at least). This information is public information and would be provided if requested through the Freedom of Information Act.

    There is an easy remedy if you don’t want your employer reading your texts. Buy your own phone for your personal use and use theirs for business only.

  4. 4 Ronald Almeida
    December 15, 2009 at 16:10

    Keep two seperate phones one for work paid for by the employer and another for private calls which have nothing to do with work. Of course it may not be as simple. In any case private calls should be exclusive.

  5. December 15, 2009 at 16:11

    It’s simple – YES! If my organization provided a communications device for me it is their absolute right to know that their investment in both my job and their technology is being used properly. If my organization is one which reimburses me for a phone that I already own in my name, then no, but that’s not the issue. I used to work for the mobile phone industry here in the US, and I know countless customers who have a work phone and a private phone, and they know what is appropriate use of which device. What if you work for a charity, like me, or a public office, where in the US, your e-mails and all official communications are automatically public domain? I am using my work computer right now, my boss is aware of the uses to which I put the computer and I fully expect to be monitored. If I have something to communicate with someone that I would not wish for my boss to immediately know in every detail, then I will wait until it is on my time with my own device!

  6. 6 steve
    December 15, 2009 at 16:17

    This case involves public officers using publicly paid for and provided cell phones for personal use. Just like any other usage of something public, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy, so I’m positive that the court will rule that there is not an expectation of privacy. This is different than a public phone, which is really private but made publically available. This is paid for by the taxpayer, to be used for official purposes, and they have the benefit of also using them for personal purposes. But if you really wanted privacy, you would use your own personal cell phone. Everyone working in the private sector knows that their employer can access their phones, the data, and emails, that you write. This is no different, and in fact, you would have less of an expectation of privacy given that the taxpayer is paying for this phone.

  7. 7 Jennifer
    December 15, 2009 at 16:24

    Under no circumstances should a boss be allowed to read personal messages on a phone. If you are issued a phone from your place of employment; it should only be used for work purposes. You should have a personal phone and all of your personal phone usage should come from that phone. If you do use a work phone for personal use; yes, your boss should be able to look at the usage. It’s a work issued phone; they pay the bill and they have the right to know what their phone is being used for.

  8. 8 Chintan in Houston
    December 15, 2009 at 16:25

    Yes, I do have a company phone and having my boss access to my personal text messages even though makes me uncomfortable it is not wrong and I do not object to it.
    It a company phone which is given to employees to do company business and not for personal use.
    All i want my employer to do is announce before hand that they will have access to all the information on my phone so use wisely!
    If you are uncomfortbale with the idea, then do not text or email but ‘CALL’ thats what phones were orginially built for before they became hand held super computers.

  9. 9 Keith from USA
    December 15, 2009 at 16:25

    My answer is no. The idea that someone should be able to read someones personal messages due to paying the bill would be like saying that ahusband should be able to read his wifes emails if he is paying for the internet.

    There is more to justice than money. Reducing what is acceptable to a matter of “whose paying for it” is living by the law of the jungle… it is contrary to civilisaton because it allows the strong to prey on the weak… it allows the people with money to prey on thse who don’t have money.

    • December 15, 2009 at 17:07

      I think you’re missing a major point here. As I posted above, you need to understand that the boss has invested time and money into both the employee and the technology made available to that employee. If I sent a libelous e-mail from my work account, from my work computer, then both my organization AND I could be sued. Should my employer not have the right to know that their investment is being used in a way which could be detrimental to their bottom line and reputation? It is more than just money, it is also about respect. What if I drive a forklift, should I be able to use it to go to McDonald’s, because after all, the boss might have paid for the forklift and my training to safely use it, but it is mine to use to accomplish my job?

  10. 11 Ibrahim in UK
    December 15, 2009 at 16:30

    The default expectation is that there is privacy. If there is no privacy guaranteed, then it should be explicitly stated and agreed before the person can use the device.

  11. 12 James
    December 15, 2009 at 16:31

    Yes, It it’s equipment that is loan to you as an employee, then you should not have on it anything that your boss might not approve of being on it…. Period!

  12. 13 Roy, Washington DC
    December 15, 2009 at 16:32

    Their phone, their property. I don’t know of any office job here in the USA where you aren’t told that “We have the right to monitor what you do on our equipment.”

  13. 14 Dennis Junior
    December 15, 2009 at 16:40

    Simple answer: Have a personal cell phone with text messaging and one for work with text capability.

    =Dennis Junior=

  14. 15 Mike in Seattle
    December 15, 2009 at 16:46

    In this specific case, the officers were told a few things:

    1. The devices could be used for light personal use.
    2. No expectation of privacy.
    3. Use over a certain amount would be charged to the officer in question.
    4. Officers who paid the bill would not have their messages retrieved.

    In this court case, the messages were retrieved after the officer in question paid the bill, and were read by his boss anyway.

    There is clearly an expectation of privacy here. The police chief acted without good faith here.

  15. 16 Andrew in Australia
    December 15, 2009 at 16:51

    Here is a thought, if you are at work, using work equipment, being paid for by the company… maybe you should be using it for work purposes and not using it to chat to friends or update your twitter site?

    Besides which, apart from issues of wasting time and opening up your company to legal issues, you have to be really stupid to think what you say wont end up possibly being used against you, when the technology to monitor your traffic is easily obtained and used and would you want your bosses to know what you are doing in your private moments?

    Or think about this.. if it were your business would you want your employees goofing of on your time? Guess not!

  16. December 15, 2009 at 17:12

    Amy from WHYS here.

    avidreader_1969 tweeted us this:
    “personally if you know your phone is owned by your boss why would you use it 4 personal use? It is just common sense.”

  17. 18 pattin in cape coral
    December 15, 2009 at 17:12

    Hi Mike in Seattle- In #2 it says there was no expectation of privacy, which seems to contradict #4 were officers who paid the bill would not have their messages retrieved. Which one holds more sway?

  18. 19 gary
    December 15, 2009 at 17:13

    Corporations do not purchase people, merely their services. Job activities are defined. Unless an employee must engage in particular mental or physical activities 100% of their time on the clock (in which case they couldn’t text or phone anyway) and if their fulfillment of the defined job function is up to date, then they own their time and thoughts expressed therein.

  19. 20 Tara Ballance, Montreal Canada
    December 15, 2009 at 17:13

    While I don’t have a company-issued mobile phone, I do use my company email account to send personal messages. I have no objection to my employers reading those personal emails, because I self-censor to ensure that my messages contain nothing of an offensive or controversial nature.

    Given the way that electronic communications can be forwarded so easily these days, I think the employer has a right to know whether an employee is using company-issued communication tools in a way that can reflect poorly upon the employer.

    There’s a big difference between “I’ll pick up a quart of milk on the way home from work” and the sexually-explicit text messages that the police officer in question was sending to his girlfriend.

  20. 21 Prof. brian bevan
    December 15, 2009 at 17:20

    If the boss is supplying the phone then yes because if you as the user should not have personal info. on it anyway. so many different subjects can be on the device. If you insist on using personal items then you should purchase your own!

  21. 22 T
    December 15, 2009 at 17:22

    This brings up an interesting point. Obama has a Blackberry. So does his wife, his kids and Joe Biden. Obama and Biden are govt. employees. Which means that they work for us the voters.

    Does this then mean that we’re entitled to read all of their texts? If not, why not? Is the govt. going to say that all Presidential emails to his family are covered under “national security”? When people post messages on the White House You Tube page, those are part of the Presidential Record (which is open to the public).

    Any legal opinions on this?

  22. 23 Gary Paudler
    December 15, 2009 at 17:28

    The employer’s policy should be clear and understood by the employee, but I would always presume that I had no privacy while on the clock or using company-owned equipment.
    My boss is a complete jerk, reads all my correspondence, constantly berates me for trivial transgressions, second-guesses all my decisions, makes me work insane hours, sleeps with my wife and just won’t leave me alone; just a few of the pitfalls of self-employment.

  23. 24 steve/oregon
    December 15, 2009 at 17:36

    I am a public employee for the city that I work in my phone is issued to me by my work. The first question I asked was what uses I was allowed to use it for. They explained the same as those other officers. Light personal use, multimedia communications for work. I was also informed via policy that the phone is open to public domain but would require a warrant. When my bills got too high they simply issued me a stipend to help pay for it each month.
    I had an encounter with my boss the other day in which I sent an e-mail to him informing him of a change in schedule. when he asked to see the e-mail on my phone I told him, “no” because I now pay for the phone the plan is under my name and there for is no longer apart of public domain.
    to this date my boss the “City Attorney” is still searching for a law that allows hime the authority to access the information.

  24. 25 Anthony
    December 15, 2009 at 17:43

    If you have a phone, or anything else, supplied by your employer, then it would be STUPID to do anything with it you wouldn’t want your employer to know. I know a person who got fired for drinking and driving in his company car, and one who got fired for looking at pron on his work computer (he thought he erased it… he didn’t completely erase it).

    -Anthony, LA, CA

  25. 27 Tom K in Mpls
    December 15, 2009 at 18:05

    Having been in corporate IT this is easy and immutable. Anyone misusing company money, ( pens, time, bandwidth ) opens themselves to a wide variety of punitive actions. You are there to do a job. In some cases a company may choose to relax the rules. This may be for the whole company or someone with an different function or exceptional performance. It is their choice. This does not automatically apply equally to all in the company or as a standard in an industry.

    The company has the freedom, to a considerable extent, to act as they choose, to make the company, and through the company, their people succeed. If you have no faith in the company, find a place in a better one, then leave.

  26. 28 Julia in Portland Oregon
    December 15, 2009 at 18:07

    Employers are liable for the actions of their employees when they are doing the jobs, using company equipment and technology.

    With that, the employer has every right to access to any and all interactions using their technology and equipment.

    Having a personal cell phone is easy these days and free email accounts are incredibly easy to get. There is no reason for company equipment to be used for personal reasons. You don’t even need to receive personal calls over company telephones since almost everyone has a cell phone.

    The only thing I can see might be at issue is whether the policy has to be written into the company to clearly state that there is no implied privacy.

  27. 29 Julia in Portland Oregon
    December 15, 2009 at 18:36

    Re: Obama’s blackberry…..I do believe it is his personal possession that was not paid for or issued by the government, that means we do not have access to it or any right to it.

  28. 30 Elina in Finland
    December 15, 2009 at 18:38

    In my workplace employees can expect a reasonable amount of privacy even when it comes to using work issued phones or email accounts. But, basically, I think it’s clear that if the employer has supplied the phone and pays the charges then the phone should be used for work purposes only, and the same goes for work email accounts.

  29. December 15, 2009 at 18:48

    My best advice is that we should develop a culture of fare play. That way you should not have something to fear all the time. We are way too much into 1984. Changing the seam card may not help because your phone serial number is known by the phone company and this is the most likely place where you could be sold out.
    I am not a mister clean but so far I have nothing to fear even if someone knows my number. I know there are so many people and organizations smelling my dirty andies and sweaty armpits. That’s okay; it only tells me that they may have smelled worse than mine. I would like them to tell me for instance how I smell where I feign to so and probably thank them for that. Probably I was one day a tiger and did not know it.
    Lastly I do not make unnecessary calls and I have not allowed my friends we socialize on the phone. That is because it is my private phone. What I am saying is that even if its a private phone, know the limits because you cannot be totally sure. Patti is right. How do you remain private?

  30. 32 D from Indiana
    December 15, 2009 at 19:04

    If the phone is supplied by your employer, yes.

  31. 33 J.B. Konno
    December 15, 2009 at 19:31

    This debate continues to rage over electronic mail as well. I see the text message and e-mail debates as equivalent. If your employer, whether it be a government or private entity, provides you a mobile phone to perform your duties, it seems only right they have complete and unfettered access to your call logs, text messages, e-mails, etc. They pay the bill, after all, and have a right to scrutinize the expense.

    Oregon, USA

  32. 34 JanB
    December 15, 2009 at 20:05

    As long as you let your boss pays the phone bill you can expect him wanting to know how that money is spend, I know I would wanna know, that’s why I don’t give to Africa. If you sue your boss for wanting to know how you spend his money then you’re not a hero of civil rights but you’re a scrounger.

    If you want privacy get your own phone and pay for your own bills.

  33. 35 Alan in Arizona
    December 15, 2009 at 21:45

    If it’s your phone, NO! If it’s there phone, don’t use it for anything stupid!

  34. 36 T
    December 16, 2009 at 00:12

    I’m not sure I agree. The govt. issued him, Biden and their families secure Blackberries. Usually these cost at least $500 on up. A source at a well-known mobile company here in the States said Obama is a customer of theirs.

    Does this mean HE’s a customer? Or, does this mean that this carrier has a high-security govt. contract? Either way, his texts, emails, etc. are all part of the Govt. record. Unless his attorney (or the Justice Dept.) can show “executive privledge”, they could be turned over to a special prosecutor.

  35. 37 Frank in the USA
    December 16, 2009 at 12:27

    A work-provided phone is a work-related device provided for the convenience of the employer, and all messages contained thereon belong to him. Using that phone for personal purposes is stealing unless expressly permitted by the employer.

    What’s outrageous is that anyone would even think that they have a “right” to the personal use of someone else’s property. That is socialism at it’s core: “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.”

  36. 38 John in Salem
    December 16, 2009 at 18:41

    I carry my own cell and never use the company phone so I have an expectation of privacy. I also carry my own laptop (and my boss can and does watch me use it) and don’t use company computers for private communications BUT, my boss pays for the wi-fi so I can’t have the expectation of privacy regarding how I use my laptop at work.
    In the past I have worked for other companies that consider EVERYTHING on company property to be subject to search, and as long as this is defined and agreed to up front at the point of hiring I don’t have a problem with it.
    You don’t HAVE to work for anybody, but when you do you need to play by their rules.

  37. 39 scmehta
    December 17, 2009 at 08:04

    Even if the bosses foot the bills of their employees’ cell-phones, they have absolutely no right to ingress their privacy. Instead, they should check the bills and relate their details with the work involved.

  38. 40 Bapster
    March 15, 2010 at 05:03

    What about the OTHER person who may or may not know that the phone they are texting is a company work phone? Don’t they have a reasonable expectation of privacy? Shouldn’t then the company phone always give out a message, “This message is being recorded”. Otherwise, how would you know if you received a text from an anonymous phone that it was being monitored. Hasn’t every one here received a text from an unknown source? Personally, I think everyone here has just gotten used to this idea that because a company issues and makes their employees use a company issued phone that they get to monitor it. I don’t think that should be the case particularly if the employee has to have that phone with them at all times and while away from “work” yet always on standby. This is an invasion of privacy plain and simple. You all have just gotten used to you Constitutional Rights being taken away one piece at a time. Why don’t you just give up your guns too and the shirts on your backs because your company pays you your check?

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