Snooping into a co-worker's e-mail? You could be arrested

News anchor charged with e-mail break-ins shines light on line between a prank and a crime

Van Wyk said being reprimanded or even fired is a far more likely punishment than having your employer call in law enforcement. But that largely depends on how often you snooped, what you did with the information and how you accessed the e-mails or instant messages.

"When you do it once, it is criminal, but the question is whether that warrants prosecution by the government," said Mauro Wolfe, a partner at the Dickstein Shapiro law firm. "I can't even imagine a case where a local prosecutor would want to take that on. The Mendte case shows that when you do it 537 times and in a public way and when you try to destroy someone, you're going to be prosecuted. When you try to harm someone and humiliate them publicly, that takes it to another level."

Employers, however, mostly have the legal right to read workers' e-mail and IMs. If it's the employer's system, equipment and time, then the communications are under their domain as well. "They inform employees that only professional use is permitted and they have the right to monitor what goes on with e-mail traffic and web surfing," said Christie, who leads the information technology group at the McCarter & English law firm, where he is a partner. "There's no reasonable expectation of privacy."

And when it comes to co-workers taking their curiosity or bad intentions too far, Christie said it comes down to intentional access.

He explained that if an e-mail is on someone's computer screen and you walk by and see it, you have not intentionally accessed that e-mail. However, if you are looking at a blank screen or screen saver and you press keys or move a mouse to access e-mail, then you have intentionally accessed it. Doing something affirmative is the dividing line between a possible slap on the wrist from your boss or dismissal and possible criminal charges.

"The totality of the conduct makes it a more serious offense," said Christie. "If someone is actually breaking in, by bypassing a password, if it was done in an effort to commit another crime, like identity theft, that would certainly make it a felony and something law enforcement would certainly take much more seriously."

Both Christie and van Wyk said it would be more tempting for someone in IT to break into a co-worker's e-mail because their level of access would make it so much easier. And while Christie said he'd expect IT workers to be under greater scrutiny, van Wyk said that's largely not the case at all.

"Watching the watcher is a classic problem that is not trivially solved," said van Wyk. "I think IT needs to have policies that speak to abuse of power. Too often those policies are left unarticulated. Like, you may use admin privileges to run the system but not to read users' data. You may back the data up in your job function, but you may not read it without express permission from its owner. That sort of thing."

Christie said companies need to be more vigilant about keeping an eye on employees' communications and who might be accessing areas they shouldn't be. IT should be tightening security, making sure there are set policies and that employees are well educated about what's allowed and what is not. And, he added, companies need to step up and investigate when it's warranted.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

GGG Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?