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>Microsoft's Ballmer In Firing Line As Gates Departs

Information Week
InformationWeek Daily - Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Editor's Note

Company Argues For Right To Read Ex-Employee's E-Mail

A finance company is arguing in court that it had a right to read an ex-employee's personal e-mail. Sounds crazy, right? And yet, in this world where we carry BlackBerrys to access work e-mail from home, and handle personal business over the company Internet connection, it takes a crazy person to figure out where personal life ends and work begins.

The New York Times has the story. Structured Settlement Investments fired Scott Sidell, who formerly headed the company. He filed an arbitration claim over his lost job and, in a lawsuit filed last month, he says that executives at Structured Settlement read e-mail messages that he exchanged over his Yahoo account with attorneys about strategies for winning the arbitration claim.

How was it possible for Structured Settlements to access Sidell's personal Yahoo account? Sidell said in court papers that he may have left his office computer logged in to Yahoo Mail. But the company says Sidell returned to the office after he was fired and used another employee's computer.

Years ago, I wrote a column arguing that companies ought not to read employees' e-mail. At least one IT manager scolded me for being childish. What you do on the company's e-mail system, using the company computers, and the company's network, is the company business, he said.

My logical brain says that's right. You can certainly make a similar argument here: Sidell used a company-owned computer to access his mail. He left that computer logged into his account. Therefore the company had a right to access the e-mail on that account. QED. Sidell doesn't have a case.

And yet, intuitively, the situation seems deeply unfair. It wasn't the company's e-mail -- it was Sidell's personal account. He no longer worked for them. The company eavesdropped on communications between a former employee and the employee's attorney -- discussing a case against the employer. How can that be right?

How much privacy should an employee expect when using an employer's communications resources?

Read the rest of my blog and leave a comment here.

Mitch Wagner
[email protected]
www.informationweek.com

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