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    Wall Street Journal: Some Courts Raise Bar on Reading Employee Email

    The Wall Street Journal reports on legal cases concerning employers’ rights to read employees’ e-mail.

    Recent cases have shown that employees sometimes have more privacy rights than they might expect when it comes to the corporate email server. Legal experts say that courts in some instances are showing more consideration for employees who feel their employer has violated their privacy electronically. […]

    In past years, courts showed sympathy for corporations that monitored personal email accounts accessed over corporate computer networks. Generally, judges treated corporate computers, and anything on them, as company property.

    Now, courts are increasingly taking into account whether employers have explicitly described how email is monitored to their employees. […]

    In another case this year, Bonnie Van Alstyne, a former vice president of sales and marketing at Electronic Scriptorium Ltd., a data-management company, was in the thick of a testy legal battle in Virginia state court with the company over employment issues when it came to light that her former boss had been accessing and reading her personal AOL email account. The monitoring went on for more than a year, continuing after Ms. Van Alstyne left the company. Ms. Van Alstyne sometimes used her personal email account for business purposes, and her supervisor said he was concerned that she was sharing trade secrets.

    The supervisor, Edward Leonard, had accessed her account “from home and Internet cafes, and from locales as diverse as London, Paris, and Hong Kong,” according to legal filings in the case.

    Ms. Van Alstyne sued Mr. Leonard and the company for accessing her email without authorization. A jury sided with her, and the case eventually settled.

    First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams told the Journal, “Computers are becoming recognized as being so much a part of the ongoing personal as well as professional life of employees and everyone else that courts are more sympathetic all the time to granting greater recognition to privacy,”

    Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Quon v. Arch Wireless (pdf) that an employer who contracted with an outside firm to transmit text messages could not read the messages unless the employee allowed the company to do so. The court’s opinion read:

    As a matter of law, Arch Wireless is an “electronic communication service” that provided text messaging service via pagers to the Ontario Police Department. The search of Appellants’ text messages violated their Fourth Amendment and California constitutional privacy rights because they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of the text messages, and the search was unreasonable in scope.

    Here’s coverage from last year about the case by CNet News.

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