Supreme Court Rules on the Privacy of Text Messages

Sort of.

The Supreme Court issued its ruling in Ontario v. Quon regarding a police chief reviewing the content of a police officer’s text messages with consent or a warrant. Many commenters hoped that the Court would issue a broad statement on an employee’s privacy rights in this age of cloud computing and web 2.0.

The Court chose to rule on very narrow grounds and not address the electronic privacy issue:

“A broad holding concerning employees’ privacy expectations vis-à-vis employer-provided technological equipment might have implications for future cases that cannot be predicted. It is preferable to dispose of this case on narrower grounds.”

The Justices were hesitant to jump into the battle about electronic privacy:

“The Court must proceed with care when considering the whole concept of privacy expectations in communications made on electronic equipment owned by a government employer. The judiciary risks error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging technology before its role in society has become clear.

Prudence counsels caution before the facts in the instant case are used to establish far-reaching premises that define the existence, and extent, of privacy expectations enjoyed by employees when using employer-provided communication devices. Rapid changes in the dynamics of communication and information transmission are evident not just in the technology itself but in what society accepts as proper behavior.”

Instead, the Justices looked narrowly as the special situation of the government as an employer.  Since its the government, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against warrantless searches comes into play. (This is not applicable for a private employer.)  The standard  is that

“when conducted for a “non-investigatory, work-related purpos[e]”or for the “investigatio[n] of work-related misconduct,” a government employer’s warrantless search is reasonable if it is “‘justified at its inception’” and if “‘the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of thesearch and not excessively intrusive in light of’” the circumstances giving rise to the search.”

Even if a government employee could assume some level of privacy in their messages, it would not have been reasonable for them to conclude that his messages were in all circumstances immune from scrutiny by the government employer.