Sensitive information has been leaking from all over the White House, and Sean Spicer is pissed.
These unauthorized leaks are sometimes laughable, like February’s bathrobe scandal, or more serious, like the recent allegations of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia.
As a result, Spicer, President Trump’s press secretary, is cracking down on staff channeling information to the media by checking their government-issued mobile phones for messages. Is this really allowed? And how does it work in the corporate world?
We asked J. Bryan Wood, a Chicago-based attorney specializing in employment law, for details on what rights a company has to read employees’ online communications, and what you, the employee, should do to avoid a violation of your privacy.
Those Who Own It, Own It
As nearly all cases, says Wood, if an employer provides you with a laptop, mobile phone, tablet or other device, it has the right to check all the data on it. This is usually spelled out in employment contracts, although not all companies add this provision. “I have not seen companies using them to the extent that they should,” he explained.
He recommends new senior-level employees have this added when they negotiate employment contracts and discuss what devices and other resources the company will pay for.
What About Private Devices?
It’s normal for us to use our mobile phones and notebooks for both work and private life. As a result, Wood says it is increasingly common for companies to ask employees to sign an agreement as part of a “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) policy. With this, you agree to use your personally-owned device to access the company’s data and systems, including its Wi-Fi network. In turn, it allows your employer to access, monitor and even control the information on it. But be warned. “Frequently, these policies contain the right to wipe the entire device,” he comments.
Wood claims that large multinational firms almost always have a BYOD policy and many also install mobile device management software, essentially an app that gives them the ability to easily monitor personal devices used for work. Smaller, less sophisticated companies are not there yet, but the trend is growing.
Employers Win, Usually
What about when there is no written agreement, and there is a legal dispute between the employer and employee about invasion of privacy? Wood says that most of the time employees lose. “Usually, a company has done the paperwork to eliminate the employee’s expectation of privacy.” This could be as a result of them signing a computer networking policy that states if they use the company’s Wi-Fi, they cannot expect privacy. Or a provision in the agreement they signed when they were given a company-issued laptop. In this case, even emails on a private account can be monitored.
How Employees Protect Themselves
First, Wood counsels all employees to read what they are asked to sign carefully. His best advice for employees who want to avoid employers reading their messages? If you can afford it, have one device for your personal life and one for your professional life, and do not connect to the company Wi-Fi with the private one. In addition to avoiding potential privacy problems, this approach offers work-life balance benefits, too. (You will be less tempted to check Facebook at work, or emails from your boss at home.)
Wood’s is the voice of experience. “I have had more than one executive-level client tell me: ‘I wish I had had my own device’.”
Wood believes companies are realizing they need to be mindful of employees’ privacy to stay competitive in the job market. With social media and its importance in career search, “a story of an employer overstepping its bounds and invading an employee’s privacy has the ability to spread like wildfire” and harm the company’s reputation.
Looking ahead, he also predicts growing use of technology that allows employees to go into “private mode” (which enables them to hide data from searches), but also allows employers to better monitor information on devices. “There is a drive on both sides,” he says.
Kate Rodriguez is a freelance marketing copywriter based in Munich. She has over 20 years of professional experience in public and private organizations. A former international trade analyst for the U.S. government, she also worked as a university career coach, specializing in international career search. Most recently, she was employed at Experteer as a customer service agent and online marketing manager.