"It all comes out in the wash," she says, pointing out that she uses her work iPhone for personal calls, and a personal laptop for work. "Employers should trust your employees. If employers are looking over someone's shoulder continuously it makes the employees less productive."
Employers cite a wide range of reasons why they should be allowed to snoop. They want to know if a worker is wasting the company's time and money updating his Facebook status instead of updating spreadsheets. They fear that co-workers could sue if they feel that company equipment is being used for sexual harassment. And they definitely want to know if an employee is stealing client information or leaking confidential data.
Company lawyers often argue that employers have undisputable rights because they own the equipment, and because they usually have policies that make it clear that messages will be monitored. But worker advocates argue that it's inevitable that employees will have to use work equipment to take care of personal matters, and that their bosses shouldn't be allowed free rein to snoop.
"In the world we live in, I don't think it's realistic to say you can't send a personal e-mail or a quick text while you're at work," says Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a Texas-based advocacy group that defends workers rights. She points out that technology has increased the burden on workers, who are now expected to check work e-mail and take work calls from home. While she understands that employers must sometimes monitor messages to make sure no rules are being broken, limits must be set. "The widespread viewing of messages – I can see why it's troubling to employees."
To shed some light on a murky area, the Supreme Court has finally decided to get involved. It said this week it plans to review a case decided in a federal appeals court last year involving a cop in California who sent mostly personal messages on his work pager -- including sexually explicit text messages to his wife. When his employer, the City of Ontario, Calif., obtained a transcript of messages from the wireless provider without his permission, officer Jeff Quon sued for breach of privacy and won. The city has now taken the case to the Supreme Court, which is expected to hear arguments in the spring and make a decision by the end of June.
Lawyers said the Supreme Court might decide to use the case to set guidelines on whether employees have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" for messages they send on their work computers, cell phones and e-mails.