Current caselaw allows employers unrestricted access to their employees'
e-mails on devices owned or provided by the employer. The rationale is
that employees have no "reasonable expectation of privacy" in
e-mails because they are generally stored on the employer's computers
(or third-party servers paid for by the employer) and can be easily accessed
by the employer.
On June 18th, in Quon v. Arch Wireless, the Ninth Circuit Federal Court
of Appeals issued a ruling distinguishing text messages from e-mails and
limiting an employer's right to access such text messages even if
the service is paid for by the employer or the messages are on devices
owned or provided by the employer.
The underpinning of the ruling is that unlike e-mails, text messages are
generally intended to be instant communications that are not typically
thought to be stored. Therefore, the participants in a text message conversation
maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of that communication
(however, there is still no expectation of privacy in the headings of
a text message, only the content). A text message conversation is akin
to an old-fashioned voice call over a telephone line, in which the participants
maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy because they do not contemplate
that a record of the conversation is being kept.
If your employer wants to look through your e-mails, text messages or any
other communication, or they already have, be sure to consult an attorney
to insure your privacy rights have not been violated.