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Is It Ethical for Your Employer to Read Your Emails?

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Bosses have always looked over their underlings’ shoulders, and that still holds true in the era of high technology. Indeed, many employers take advantage of modern digital technologies to monitor their employees more closely than ever, on the grounds of maximizing worker productivity and enforcing company policies. The technology exists for them to monitor almost everything you do on a company machine, accounts or networks, and the legal climate in the United States gives employers relative impunity.


The courts have consistently sided with employers on the issue of employee email privacy, which means you should not usually expect a right to privacy with your communications at work. This includes not just the messages you send and receive on your work email account, but also the ones you send and receive on your personal email accounts when using a company computer or phone, as well as any communications from a private computer to a work account. The only time you can expect a legal right to private communications is when it is spelled out in your company’s email policy or in the terms of your personal employment contract. Some gray areas do exist, such as using webmail programs like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail at a company that has no email monitoring policy, but you should not rely on legal ambiguity to protect your privacy. While the federal government has not yet done anything to rein in these sweeping employer powers, a few state governments, including California, Connecticut and Delaware, have imposed certain limits on these wide-ranging employer freedoms, either by requiring that employees be notified of any email monitoring or by restricting such monitoring in the first place.


Regardless of legality, many companies do read their workers’ email. Most commonly, a manager simply logs into your company email account and reads the messages stored there. More subtly, many companies save copies of emails you send and receive, which is easy to do given the low-security nature of email, and they may even use keyloggers to save drafts of your emails regardless of whether you ever send them. Because the company’s network stores your communications, it doesn’t matter if you eventually delete anything you don’t want others to read. That information will still exist on the network, and your employer can still access it. Whether or not someone actually investigates all these saved emails varies from company to company; however, unless you take special steps to encrypt your email, or unless you know with confidence that your employer is not monitoring your communications, you should assume that nothing you do on your work computer is private.


Employers argue that they need the right to employ such heavy-handed practices in order to maintain worker productivity, monitor and audit worker performance, ensure the appropriate use of company resources and protect the company from legal liability in the event of illicit computer activity by workers. Privacy and workers’ rights advocates counter that these policies dehumanize workers, undermine trust and loyalty in the workplace and actually diminish productivity by intimidating workers. So far, in the absence of strong union action or significant legislative intervention by the federal government, it is an argument that employers are winning.


The safest option for you when it comes to your private communications is to avoid corporate networks and property completely. Do not involve company machines, accounts or networks in any way. Send email from personal accounts, using either public networks in places like libraries or cafes, or private residential networks such as the one at your home. A riskier but more practical alternative is for you to bring a personal device to work, like a laptop or smartphone, and use that to conduct your private communications using your personal email account. If you connect through the company’s network there is still a risk of your privacy being breached, but many companies do not take their monitoring efforts to such extreme lengths. Additionally, if you carry out such communications during off periods like breaks or lunch, the company will have less reason to spy in the first place and will have a harder time defending itself in court should you decide to sue for a privacy violation.


Josh Fredman is a freelance pen-for-hire and Web developer living in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington, studying engineering, and worked in logistics, health care and newspapers before deciding to go to work for himself.

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