• Can my boss snoop through my text messages?

    Date: 01.23.08 | by Judge Tom.

     Regardless of your age, the law recognizes that you have a reasonable expectation of privacy at work.  For example, your boss can’t search your purse or your wallet unless it’s a condition of employment that you’ve agreed to  when hired. Your employer may have company rules or policies about monitoring, surveillance or drug testing employees. The same is true of your personal cell phone – your texts are private like your journal or diary. However, if your boss provided you with the phone for work purposes, your supervisor could look through your texts depending on the circumstances and terms of your employment. 

    If the police are conducting an investigation they could also read your messages, with or without a search warrant, depending on the circumstances and the laws in your state. Bottom line: don’t incriminate yourself – be very careful of what you say so that a statement is not misinterpreted as a threat or sign that you’re involved with criminal activity. Since this is a new and developing area of law, challenges based on expectation of privacy will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

    Photo by Gaetan Lee

    In June, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decided its first case dealing with this issue.  In the case of City of Ontario v. Quon, the court ruled  that government employees have a limited expectation of privacy on their employer-issued cellphones, computers, etc.  The employer may conduct a search of their equipment if the search is reasonable and has a legitimate work-related purpose.  The search may be without a warrant and it must be reasonable in scope.

    In July, 2010, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that teachers have an expectation of privacy when using email at school regarding personal matters. The state’s public records law does not cover conversations about non-school related matters. See here for more about this case.

    Update:  In a case that may be a first of its kind, a 33-year-old man from Michigan was charged in December, 2010 with hacking into his wife’s computer. Leon Walker faces 5 years in prison if convicted at his February, 2011 trial. He claims she gave him her password and that he was checking on the welfare of his children. They were separated at the time. His defense may regard the statute itself that was arguably meant to prosecute  identity theft or stealing trade secrets.

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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    27 Comments subscribe to these comments.

    • lewis
      Tue, 10 Mar 2009 at 04:06

      can my boss get details of company vehicle i was drink driving in but i was not charged

      Judge Tom’s response:
      Dear Lewis – yes, if as you said, the car or truck belonged to your boss or his company, you have no right to keep him from obtaining information about your activities while driving the company truck. When you started working for this company you most likely signed some agreement regarding your rights and responsibilities that includes driving company vehicles. It might be best to fess up to what happened since he/she will find out anyway, not to mention honesty is the best policy. All the best.

    • Jon Vogel
      Tue, 02 Jun 2009 at 09:01

      so my boss took my phone today after she caught me looking at it and when she took it she wouldent let me turn it off first then looked throw my messages and tolod me she did the asked one of my co workiers if he texted me to and tolod him she looked at my messages is this illgal

      Judge Tom’s Response:
      Whether it’s legal or not depends on a number of things: did you agree when you were hired to allow your boss to read your messages? who provided the cell phone, is it a work phone? did you agree when she took the phone from you? and what are the privacy laws of your state regarding the workplace? All of these factors make a difference in your situation. Good luck.

    • Shawn Rose
      Tue, 11 Aug 2009 at 11:39

      My boss tried to implement a new rule of her taken all the employees cell phones out of the blue. Is this a legal thing to do in the state of California?

      Judge Tom’s response:
      Askthejudge.info does not provide legal advice or interpret state and federal laws. Generally, what your boss can do depends on the terms of your employment. In this case, if the phones were issued by your employer, they may be taken. If they’re your personal phone, that’s a different matter. You need to ask a lawyer who is familiar with California law. Good luck.

    • Tracy
      Fri, 06 Nov 2009 at 06:06

      I work in Ontario, Canada. I read an email on my boss’s computer. It was from another employee complaining about me. Can I get in trouble/fired for reading the email?
      Judge Tom’s response:
      It depends on the workplace rules that you likely agreed to when you were hired. Confidentiality laws may also apply in your province and/or at work. You might consider asking your Human Resource person who would be knowledgable about these issues. Good luck.

    • Rach
      Tue, 09 Feb 2010 at 04:27

      I live in Ontario Canada. I have my own cell phone of which is mine personally. I work at a tanning salon and left my phone on the front desk while I went tanning. My boss was at the front desk. My phone also has a lock on it and the password is the same as the password I use at work which my boss knows. The last text messages I had on my phone were about me quitting. My next shift my boss told me she had heard rumor that I want to quit. Me and her are the only people working there and i do not tell any of my customers my personal life. In fact I had only told my friend who lives in another town through that one text message that I was thinking about quitting. Regardless of actual proof is it illegal for my boss to go into my phone through a password and read my text mssages without my permission?
      Dear Rach: The issue of cell phone privacy at work is a new and developing area of the law. In the U.S., courts are deciding these matters as they come up in court cases. In December, 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that users have an expectation of privacy on their cell phones and that the police would need a search warrant to search a phone unless officer safety was an issue. But that’s just one ruling in one jurisdiction. Generally, your boss would have access to your phone if he or she supplied it for use while at work, or you agreed to such when you were hired. You’ll have to check the status of the law in your area. Good luck.
      [This is information only - not legal advice].

    • tracie
      Fri, 16 Apr 2010 at 02:18

      i am having alot of issues at work including sexual harrasment. among other things. the higher up’s in my company want me to copy the documentation in my diary and give it to them. do i have to do this or is there protection against this??
      thank you
      Dear Tracie: You need to check your state’s employment and privacy laws. It’s unlikely that you’re required by law to turn over your diary contents, but it may be important to an investigation of workplace harassment. Speak with a local lawyer about this or check with your local EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] whose work includes enforcing federal law regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. Good luck.
      [This is information only - not legal advice].

    • Simon
      Thu, 03 Jun 2010 at 07:59

      My Daughters Supervisor borrowed her cell phone because he told her that his was broken and that he needed to call the Boss on some matter or other. After using it she found that he had Texted her boss poseing as her and made some remarks and called him some names. She called her boss immediately and told him that it was not her that sent thoes, but she is worried that he dose not believe her. Is there any action that can be taken to the supervisor?
      Dear Simon: If your daughter is a minor, you might consider contacting her boss and request a meeting to discuss this matter. You could set the record straight so she doesn’t suffer any consequences in the future. She could also confront her supervisor and ask for an explanation of what he did. She might also keep copies of the messages he sent or leave them in the phone until this is resolved. As a last resort you could discuss the situation with a lawyer who specializes in employment law. Good luck.
      [This is information only - not legal advice].

    • Melissa
      Fri, 18 Jun 2010 at 07:05

      My boss and I dated for 4 years and recently broke it off. My phone
      is on the company plan so couldn’t he just look at the monthly bill
      to see the #’s I have been calling and texting?
      Dear Melissa: Funny you should ask at this time. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided their first case regarding cell phone privacy. They ruled unanimously [9-0] that an employer issued phone or computer may be searched by the employer if there is reason to believe that work rules have been or are being broken. You might also look to anything you signed when you started working with this company. You may have already agreed to searches in your employment contratc. You might consider getting a private phone, not connected to your job. Good luck.
      [This is information only - not legal advice].

    • Jen
      Wed, 28 Jul 2010 at 05:03

      While at work (my lunch break) I accidentally called my employers extension on my personal cell phone(it was in my pocket). I was having a conversation with fellow employees at the office. The conversation was maybe a little inappropriate; however, my employer intercepted the call, and she put me on speaker phone so other people could listen to my phone call(approximately 30 minutes, when I was leaving the office(after lunch) to go work in different put of the facility; they then decided to call me on the office phone to tell me they heard my entire conversation. The person that called me wasn’t even the person that intercepted the call. Is this a violation of my privacy?
      Dear Jen: Cell phone privacy at work and school is a subject of much debate today in both state legislatures and courts. A few recent cases have come down on the side of the employee and student, holding that individulas have a reasonable expectation of privacy on their cell phones even if issued by the employer for work-related calls. Every state has its own laws regarding privacy. You could also check any documents you signed when hired by your employer – you may have agreed to certain provisions allowing oversight of your calls while at work. You could also talk with a lawyer who specializes in employment law and is familiar with privacy issues. This is a developing area of the law and the challenge is for the law to catch up with technology. Good luck.
      [This is information only - not legal advice].

    • Peggy
      Tue, 19 Oct 2010 at 06:45

      My son helped a friend start up a company that he was at for about 4 years. He used his personal cell number and phone for business and then eventually the owner was able to put that number on the business acct. and buy him a better phone. My son has recently departed
      the company and is in search of a new job. The cell number is on his resume. Of course
      the phone needs to be returned, but the owner insists on keeping the cell number which my son has had for 15 years. My son is not willing to give it up without a fight. What are his rights? There have been no business calls on that phone since he left the company.
      Dear Peggy: Ownership of the number depends on a number of factors. Who had the number first and paid for service; what your son and his business partner agreed to when the number was switched over to the business account and who paid for the service; and whether there was an agreement (oral or written) regarding the number upon a break-up of the business. There are other legal considerations that come into play that require the expertise of a lawyer familiar with contract or business law. You might contact someone in your area. Ask if he or she offers a free consultation for the first 30 to 60 minutes. That is not uncommon today and may be all the advice you need. Good luck.
      [This is information only - not legal advice].

    • Tanya
      Tue, 07 Jun 2011 at 03:48

      My boss changes my password to my land line at work so he can check my messages. Is this okay? I have not signed anything regarding they can do that nor have I done anything to make them think they need to, but it is their phone. My thing is why have a password
      Dear Tanya: Whether you’ve done something to cause your boss to monitor your phone use, since it’s his business and equipment, he has control over how it’s used. It would be a different story if he required you to turn over your private cellphone. Bottom line, use the work phone just for work – no social calls, incoming or from you to friends. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Judi
      Tue, 21 Jun 2011 at 06:52

      my boss took my private cellphone off my desk without my permission and read text messages. There is no cellphone policy and I did not give him permission. What are my options. Should I report this person to hr or get an attorney?
      Dear Judi: You can check your company’s workplace policy regarding personal cellphones and other e-devices. You may have agreed to your employer taking and searching it when you were first hired and possibly signed such an agreement. If not, discussing this with HR may provide you with information about how to proceed. If you discover a violation by your employer then you can speak with a lawyer regarding your alternatives and remedies. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Jeff Tennill
      Mon, 27 Jun 2011 at 05:35

      Can my employer track me at work using the GPS feature on my Cell Phone?

      The phone belongs to me, the sim card belongs to my employer because they provide the service. The GPS is a part of the phone, not the card?????
      Great questions, Jeff. This whole area of employer-employee supervision and privacy is developing as we speak. You have to look to your state laws regarding privacy and any employment contract you may have signed when you were hired. There may be a provision in your contract addressing work equipment and use of electronic devices while on the job. You may have control over this by turning the GPS off when not in use. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Dalinda
      Thu, 18 Aug 2011 at 05:26

      I had another employee text me and tell me that she was quiting, then when she quit she thretened to sue our company for wrongful termination. i was told that my boss had to look at the text messages in my phone from the other employee but also ones from my boyfriend. What can you do in a case like this?
      Dear Dalinda: You may want to speak with a lawyer in your area who is familiar with employment law and privacy in the workplace. You may have what is called a limited “expectation of privacy” at work, but many factors must be taken into consideration. State law also applies – therefore consulting a lawyer on this is recommended. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • heather
      Wed, 14 Sep 2011 at 06:00

      A co-worker and I had a relationship when I worked for this company. He was on the company plan, I was not. I no longer work with the company, he does. Can the company view our text messages since they never paid my bills – but his is paid? Does that violate my privacy?
      Dear Heather: That depends on the terms of your employment when you were with the company. Every state has laws regarding employment and privacy while on the job. Since the other individual still works there, the company may be able to check his text or email messages if he’s using a company phone or they pay for his personal phone. They may be limited under the law to work-related content only. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Shelly
      Thu, 15 Sep 2011 at 07:41

      Recently my boss took my personal cell phone without asking (not provided by my company), and read text messages between myself and a recent former employee. What was said in the texts was not detrimental to the company, just general conversation that included some things that the other party already had knowledge of before they were let go. After they read my phone, they proceeded to try to ‘give me a chance to change my answer’ regarding if I had been talking to the other party. I was then called a liar, they admitted that they had taken my phone (without asking) and read through my texts, and threatened me with the fact they had fired people before for lying.

      I feel as though my privacy was violated, and that my boss had no reason to look through my personal phone (nor had I given her any reason to snoop into my personal business that is kept outside of work). What sort of legality do I have in this situation?
      Dear Shelly: You may want to refer to the Employee Manual (if there is one) to see if it states anything about employees’ cell phones. Also, you could try contacting a local employment attorney in your area for information and advice under your state’s employment laws. Many attorneys offer a free initial consultation. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice.)

    • Honey
      Wed, 21 Sep 2011 at 06:00

      I was just informed that there was an investigation being done, because of an aligation that was brought up against me.When I was questioned I didn’t know how to answer since I wasn’t sure what they were talking about.I was asked not to speak with others from the department until the investigation is over. Over the weekened co-works called me since we had made plans to go out.When we all came back to work I was asked to see my cell phone log, and they saw that we did speak. What are my rights on that when they have no proof of anything and all they are going by is he say she say.
      Dear Honey: Employers are allowed under the laws in most states to review your work-related communications by cellphone, computer, etc. Generally, there must be reasonable suspicion that a rule or policy at work has been broken or that a law has been violated. If charges are filed against you, discuss these emails and text messages with your lawyer. He or she will know what to do and how to handle this evidence in the case. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Patty Cake
      Fri, 28 Oct 2011 at 08:09

      recently our company is starting to use our supervisers to spy on the employees. Also taking select employees and having them sign affidavits that they will report any suspicious conversations. This is in Nevada. I believe that you have to have an investigator’s license to be hired to spy on someone. As we, the employees, are technically in the employ of the company that wants us to snoop on the other employees. Also, if we were to photograph or record anything and send it via let’s say, the cloud, doesn’t that violate some sort of internet, federal privacy act? Since there was possibly a third party consent law broken?
      Dear Patty: AsktheJudge.info is an educational site for & about teenagers and the laws that affect them. We don’t provide legal advice to adults or teens.
      Your question involves a number of legal issues regarding employment law, privacy and contract law. We suggest you speak wirth a local employment lawyer who can assess the situation and advise you. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • lisa
      Fri, 01 Jun 2012 at 07:48

      Hello judge, I live and work in Wisconsin. This week a co worker if mine was fired. She was still my friend outside if work so I continued to speak with her. Today we were told that if we communicated with her it could lead to a termination. I text her to tell her that I could speak with her anymore because I was afraid of getting fired. At the end of the day I was called into our conference Tom for a meeting with my manager and our dept head. I was asked if I had text the fired employee and what I had said. I replied honestly and said yes, I was told by my manager not to talk with her or Icould too face termination. Our dept head asked to get my personal cell and show him the 1 text message do I did for fear of being terminated on the spot had I refused. When he took my phone he scrolled up and read an entire conversion. That is not what I agreed to, he asked for 1 text. I fully expect to be fired on Monday morning for something totally unrelated because of wi bring an at will state but I sill believe my privacy was violated.
      Dear Lisa: Whether your privacy rights were violated may depend on the rules/policies of your employer and what you may have agreed to when you began your employment as well as the laws of your state. It would be best to consult with an employment law attorney in your area especially if you do end up being terminated as you suspect you may be. Many attorneys offer a free initial consultation and could answer your questions during a brief meeting. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice.)

    • Sam
      Fri, 10 Aug 2012 at 07:22

      can my eployer get history text messages or e-mail history that I have from personal phone and e-mail. there will be an investigation wether I was having a relation with another employee, I wans’t but there is a lot of text and e-mail about how corrupted the store was and I don’t want them to see that. can they retrieve that information ?
      Dear Sam: If there is a criminal investigation underway by the police or some law enforcement agency, they may be able to obtain your email/text history. Otherwise, it depends on the terms of your employment – what you agreed to when you were hired. Another factor regards ownership of the phone, if it was issued by your employer and is their property. You may want to speak with your parents about this, if you’re a minor, or a lawyer familiar with employment law. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • sally randolph
      Sat, 13 Oct 2012 at 02:17

      i worked for a tranportation company and left one of my personal cell phones on the bus. The bus driver found the cellphone and said I know whose phone this belongs to. Someone from HR was on the bus and grabbed the phone because she thought she saw a test on it. The phone locks after 5 minutes. The phone was taken and given to someone to take my sim card out and put in another phone. Now this phone was found and I know it belonged to someone I worked with. I dont know what all was on the phone as I only had it for 3 days and couldnt actually tell what was on the phone. Did my employer have the right to disassemble my phone and put it in another device? How do I know that info was put on the phone when the sim card was removed? I am very upset because they wanted to know where the info came from and honestly I dont know. Can I sue them for going through the phone
      Dear Sally: First, you’ll want to look at the terms of your employment concerning cell phones and electronic devices. Many employers may reserve the right to look through employees’ cell phones when the phone is a company issued one; however, if it’s your personal cell phone, that may be a different story. You could try having a meeting with your boss and/or other supervisors to discuss the situation. Finally, you could schedule a consultation with an employment law attorney in your area to find out your rights under your state’s laws as well as the terms of your employment. Although filing a lawsuit is always an option, it’s often not worth the time or expenses involved. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice.)

    • Debbra
      Fri, 19 Oct 2012 at 12:38

      Normally I do not learn article on blogs, however I wish to say that this
      write-up very forced me to take a look at and do so!

      Your writing style has been amazed me. Thank you, quite
      nice article.
      Thank you, Debbra, for your comments.

    • Jon
      Sat, 01 Dec 2012 at 09:11

      Well I was wondering if I left my wallet at work by mistake and my boss goes through the wallet and starts looking around my wallet for illegal substances without my consent is this legal? Even though my ID is right in front of you as you open the wallet
      Dear Jon: First, you would need to look to the terms of your employment. Some employers have their employees agree to certain terms such as searching the employee’s personal belongs for contraband. However, if this is not something you agreed to when you started your job, then it’s possible that you could file a claim, in small claims court for instance, against your employer. But this probably would not be worth your time or money (filing fees) since it’s hard to pinpoint what your “damages” would be. Your boss’s actions may not be “right”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are illegal. Perhaps you could talk to him/her about respecting your privacy. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice.)

    • stacey
      Fri, 07 Dec 2012 at 04:34

      I am the manager of a housekeeping dept, one of my employees is suing the general manger, who is my boss for workmans comp. My boss took my phone out of my hands and took it to her office, because she wanted to see if I had been talking or saying anything to this employee. It is my personal phone, not a work phone, and there is nothing in the employee handbook (that I signed) regarding cell phones.
      Dear Stacey: Since there is nothing in your employee handbook about cell phones and if you don’t believe there was any type of agreement allowing the search of phones when you began your employment, you may want to talk to human resources about the incident. You can file a complaint or at least let them know what happened. Your boss may be in the wrong and looking at a number of employees’ phones since he is being sued. You could also try contacting a local employment law attorney in your area for further help and information. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice.)

    • sweet
      Sun, 10 Feb 2013 at 10:23

      Hmm it appears like your website ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
      I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any points for first-time blog writers? I’d definitely appreciate it.
      Dear Sweet: Thanks for liking us. As far as tips for blogging, just keep writing & reading. The more you do, the better you get. All the best, -Judge Tom.

    • SLynn
      Tue, 12 Mar 2013 at 07:52

      Hello Judge,
      I am hoping you can answer this question: I work in an elementary school as an aide. I kept a handwritten journal of what I do with the children to keep track for myself of what I did. This was something I did completely on my own–it is not part of my duties. The principal “found” my notes–I never knew they were missing–and photocopied them. She told me she had done this at a meeting later that week. The notes had been in the drawer where I keep my purse. I understand that employers can look through your desk, but I want to know if she has a right to those photocopies and if I can get them back? Thank you for your help.
      Dear SLynn: We are an educational site for & about teenagers and the laws that affect them. We don’t provide legal advice to teens or adults.
      We will tell you that states have laws regarding privacy in the workplace and they differ from state-to-state. We suggest you speak with the principal or school superintendent about this and, if necessary, a local lawyer who practices school or education law. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Tlee
      Wed, 02 Jul 2014 at 10:47

      So I had an issue with the manager going through my phone and Facebook when I had forgot my phone at work one night. After I found she had msged pics of a text msg I had with another employee, she had made it sound as if she can do whatever she would like. N had threatened me about watching my back and protecting myself from here on in. I found myself not emotionally stabile to go to work the next day. Knowing what she had done I told the owner I was not able to come to work due to this abuse and destress she had inflicted on me. And he told me I ha to bring a dr. Note in wich I did… Then I had found that my full time hours that were usually 40-50 hours a week were cut down to 2 days a week at 14 hours. Now I had talked with him and he had told me she had no right going into my phone and would talk to her but that there would be no reporcotions.. But made it clear if I had done it to her I would have been fired. How far can I legally take this?
      Dear Tlee: You need to speak with an employment law attorney about this. He/she will be able to advise based on the laws in your state or province. Many attorneys offer a free initial consultation or you could try contacting your local legal aid office. Good luck.
      (Check our Resource Directory for more help and resources in your area. This is information only – not legal advice.)

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