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Who Owns Personal Email on an Employer Issued Computer or Smartphone?

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Many, if not most, of employers across the U.S. issue laptops and smartphones to their employees. The company pays the monthly bills associated with the internet access, text messaging and phone calls while the employee uses the computer or phone for business and personal needs. So, the question has now become: Who owns personal email on the employer issued computers and smartphones?

Stored Communications Act

In a case in the Ohio court system, Lazette v. Kulmatycki, the court ruled that Lazette’s past employer violated the Stored Communications Act when her previous boss accessed and read almost 48,000 personal emails from a smartphone Lazette returned after her employment ended.

The Stored Communications Act prohibits access not authorized by the individual to all personal emails and other personal internet information. This law was passed to prevent behavior similar to wiretapping of the internet.

Prevention of Employee Privacy Violations

Because computers and smartphones are basically a necessity in today’s business world, employers are encouraged to take the following steps to prevent any violations:

  • Establish a company-wide policy that follows the guidelines of the Stored Communications Act. State the privacy policies expected from your employees and what they can expect from you as their employer.
  • Determine if you will need any business information for a pending lawsuit. If you will need this information, place the phone or computer in a safe or other secured area to prevent illegal access to private information until it is needed for the lawsuit.
  • If an employee is required to relinquish a smartphone or computer at the time of termination without an opportunity to wipe their personal information from the device, and you do not need the company-related information for any reason, you need to take this step for them. It will prevent a violation of their privacy not only from you, but also from other employees who might have access to the device.

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