Big Brother Can Spy on Me If I Work for Him?

Everybody’s up in arms about the lack of online privacy these days, but it seems like if you work for the U.S. government, you ought to be more worried than most. The Supreme Court said today that it’s considering a case involving monitored text messages from a government worker that could have big implications for workers’ online rights. It comes on the heels of a suit filed against numerous government agencies over their surveillance of social networking sites.

The case that the Supreme Court is considering is the City of Ontario, Calif., vs. Quon.  Jeff Quon, a member of the police department for the city of Ontario, had used a government-issued pager to send and receive personal text messages, which were subsequently reviewed by city government officials after mobile service provider Arch Wireless turned them over upon request.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals previously took Quon’s side on the issue, deciding that the city of Ontario had violated his right to privacy. Specifically, the court found the review of the text messages “excessively intrusive.”

Ontario city officials maintain that they have a right to review messages sent from government-issued devices, and also note that they found messages sent from Quon’s pager that were “sexually explicit in nature.” In addition to reviewing the city’s claims, Supreme Court justices will determine whether Arch Wireless violated federal privacy laws by providing transcripts of Quon’s messages.

This isn’t the only recent dust-up involving the privacy rights of government workers online. Earlier this month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), working with the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley, slapped a lawsuit against half a dozen government agencies for refusing to explicitly state their policies for using social networking sites for investigations, data collection and surveillance. The suit specifically charges that the agencies are withholding information on data they’ve collected from their workers’ usage of Facebook, Twitter and other social applications.

“Millions of people use social networking sites like Facebook every day, disclosing lots of information about their private lives,” said James Tucker, a student working with EFF through the Samuelson Clinic, in a statement. “As Congress debates new privacy laws covering sites like Facebook, lawmakers and voters alike need to know how the government is already using this data and what is at stake.”

The EFF has a long history of playing a part in far-reaching privacy case decisions, and this latest one could be highly influential. Millions of workers of all stripes are finding it increasingly important to have their work personae online, especially in this economy, in which a large network can protect a worker’s prospects in the event of job loss. At the same time, everyone is wrestling with issues related to privacy and the social web. Shouldn’t government workers have the same right to use social networking tools and services as most other types of employees?  The EFF case and the Supreme Court case should go a long way toward answering such questions.