The lines between professional and personal lives are being further blurred every day. With the proliferation of smart phones, the growth of the virtual workplace and the demands of business extending into all hours of the day, employees now routinely mix business with pleasure by commingling such matters on their work and personal devices. This trend is sure to increase, particularly with “bring your own device” policies now finding their way into companies.
This sometimes awkward marriage of personal and professional issues raises the critical question of how organizations can respect the privacy rights of their employees while also protecting their trade secrets and other confidential/proprietary information. The ability to properly navigate these murky waters under the broader umbrella of information governance may be the difference between a successful business and a litigation-riddled enterprise.
Take, for instance, a recent lawsuit that claimed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unlawfully spied on the personal email accounts of nine of its employee scientists and doctors. In that litigation, the FDA is alleged to have monitored email messages those employees sent to Congress and the Office of Inspector of General for the Department of Health & Human Services. In the emails at issue, the scientists and doctors scrutinized the effectiveness of certain medical devices the FDA was about to approve for use on patients.
While the FDA’s email policy clearly delineates that employee communications made from government devices may be monitored or recorded, the FDA may have intercepted employees’ user IDs and passwords and accessed messages they sent from their home computers and personal smart phones. Not only would such conduct potentially violate the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), it might also conceivably run afoul of the Whistleblower Protection Act.
The FDA spying allegations have also resulted in a congressional inquiry into the email monitoring policies of all federal agencies throughout the executive branch. Congress is now requesting that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) produce the following information about agency email monitoring policies:
- Whether a policy distinguishes between work and personal email
- Whether user IDs and passwords can be obtained for personal email accounts and, if so, whether safeguards are deployed to prevent misappropriation
- Whether a policy defines what constitutes protected whistleblower communications
The congressional inquiry surrounding agency email practices provides a valuable measuring stick for how private sector organizations are addressing related issues. For example, does an organization have an acceptable use policy that addresses employee privacy rights? Having such a policy in place is particularly critical given that employees use company-issued smart phones to send out work emails, take photographs and post content to personal social networking pages. If such a policy exists now, query whether it is enforced, what the mechanisms exist for doing so and whether or not such enforcement is transparent to the employees. Compliance is just as important as issuing the policy in the first place.
Another critical inquiry is whether an organization has an audit/oversight process to prevent the type of abuses that allegedly occurred at the FDA. Such a process is essential for organizations on multiple levels. First, as Congress made clear in its letter to the OMB, monitoring communications that employees make from their personal devices violates the ECPA. It could also interfere with internal company whistleblower processes. And to the extent adverse employment action is taken against an employee-turned-whistleblower, the organization could be liable for violations of the False Claims Act or the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
A related aspect to these issues concerns whether an organization can obtain work communications sent from employee personal devices. For example, financial services companies must typically retain communications with investors for at least three years. Has the organization addressed this document retention issue while respecting employee privacy rights in their own smart phones and tablet computers?
If an organization does not have such policies or protections in place, it should not panic and rush off to get policies drafted without thinking ahead. Instead, it should address these issues through an intelligent information governance plan. Such a plan will typically address issues surrounding information security, employee privacy, data retention and eDiscovery within the larger context of industry regulations, business demands and employee productivity. That plan will also include budget allocations to support the acquisition and deployment of technology tools to support written policies on these and other issues. Addressed in this context, organizations will more likely strike the right balance between their interests and their employees’ privacy and thereby avoid a host of unpleasant outcomes.