Ninth Circuit Tells Employers to Stop Snooping

Jun 25, 2008
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

In a recent victory for employee privacy and free speech, the Ninth Circuit told employers to stop snooping on email and text messages.

The case:

Quon v. Arch Wireless

The facts:

The City of Ontario Police Department gave two-way pagers to its employees. Officer Quon, a Department employee, used his pager to send personal messages. Quon exceeded his messaging limit and the Department decided to audit his messages by requesting records from its wireless carrier (an outside company). After his personal messages were delivered to the city, Quon sued the City for violating the Fourth Amendment by reading the content of his communications without a warrant and sued the wireless company for violating the Stored Communications Act for turning over his messages without his consent.

The court's important conclusions:

1.) The content of email and text messages stored by a third party cannot be obtained without the employee's consent.

The wireless pager company broke the law by handing over copies of the text messages without Officer Quon's permission. Thus, if your employer pays another company to provide text messaging or email service, they can't force that company to hand over copies of your messages without your consent.

2.) The content of text of email messages stored by a third party is protected by the Fourth Amendment and requires a warrant prior to disclosure.

According to this holding, law enforcement or private parties will have to go to a judge and prove why they need to read your emails and text messages and get a warrant- just like they have to prove that they need a warrant to listen to your phone calls.

This decision promises to boost the privacy and free speech rights of many employees whose email or text messages are stored by a third party. This case is an important step in the right direction to ensure that as individuals use new communication technologies, their privacy and free speech rights are not left behind.