Hillary Clinton has come under scrutiny for exclusively using her personal email account for all of her work communications when she was secretary of state, according to a report in the New York Times. That’s actually a huge problem. Under federal law, Clinton was required to preserve all of her communications.
But you don’t have to be a former secretary of state and favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination for your work emails to be preserved for posterity, and someone might be interested in their contents: your boss.
Here’s what you should know about the privacy of your work emails—namely, that you don’t have any.
1) Your employer can monitor pretty much anything you access on the company’s computer system, even your personal email account.
In most cases, courts have taken the position that employers have the right to monitor what employees do on the employer’s computer systems and equipment, says Catherine E. Reuben, employment lawyer at the firm Hirsch Roberts Weinstein LLP.
To start, that means your boss can see any messages you send using your work email. But that’s not all. “When you send an email from work, the company server doesn’t know or care whether this email is on your company email account or your personal Yahoo account—it monitors everything,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. And that’s completely legal.
One gray area: A recent National Labor Relations Board case ruling found that employees have a presumptive right to use their employer’s email system for union organizing, although labor laws restrict employers from surveillance of union organizing activities. That means the NLRB may eventually conclude that employers are not able to monitor emails related to union organizing, even if they are sent using the employer’s server or equipment. “That is an unsettled issue,” Reuben says.
2) Assume any email, text message, or other electronic communication you send on your employer’s system can be used against you.
“In my personal experience, employers will monitor email when there is a business reason to do so,” Reuben says. “For example, if an employee accuses another employee of sending sexually harassing emails, the employer would naturally want, as part of its investigation, to review all of the email communications between the two employees.”
Adverse consequences are not uncommon. In 2007, a survey by the American Management Association found that 28% of employers had fired employees over “e-mail misuse.” The most common kinds of misuse: violation of company policies, inappropriate language, excessive personal use, or breaking confidentiality. (“Internet misuse” was even more common; another 30% of employers said they had terminated employees for excessive personal use of the Internet at work, viewing inappropriate content at work, or other violations of the employer’s electronic use policy.)
And your emails could cause a problem long after you send them. “Remember that emails, text messages, other electronic documents can live on forever, even if you delete them,” Reuben says.
3) Beware of “George Carlin software.”
You probably assume your boss doesn’t have time to monitor every email you send. That’s true, Maltby says, but you’re forgetting about the IT department. “People in IT can look at anything, anytime they want to, for any reason they want to,” Maltby says. “They are agents of the employer, and it’s the employer’s system.”
One very common practice: Some employers have keyword software to detect sexual harassment. Maltby calls it “George Carlin software” (note: that link is NSFW) because it can flag certain inappropriate words. But the software can pick up false positives. “If a female employee sends an email with the word ‘breast’ to her oncologist through the company system, it’s going to be read,” Maltby says.
The simple solution: Send any sensitive, personal messages from your own device.
4) Emailing company documents to your personal account could get you in trouble.
You have more work to do, but you just want to go home—and accessing your employer’s email remotely is a huge hassle. So you just forward your files from your work email account to your personal account and finish your work at home.
The problem? That could later create the impression that you are trying to steal the company’s confidential information.
“Make sure you read and understand your employer’s policies, and don’t download company information without permission,” Reuben says. “Do your best to protect the company’s trade secrets, confidential information, and data.”
5) When you set up your company’s email on your personal phone, you often give your employer the right to delete all of your personal data.
Want to check your work email on your personal iPhone? Your employer probably asked you to sign a “bring-your-own-device” agreement. If you didn’t read it, do that now—you likely waived some of your rights.
There’s good reason for that: Companies need to secure their information systems. “What the policy is essentially saying is, if you want the privilege of accessing our proprietary, confidential systems and the convenience of accessing those systems on your personal device, you’ve got to waive your right to privacy,” Reuben says. “Many employers in such a policy will reserve the employer’s right to monitor the employee’s activities on the device and to remote-wipe the device if there is a security risk, for example, if the device is lost or stolen.”
You read that right: You probably gave your employer permission to delete all of your personal data. Your company might want to do that if your device could be compromised—or if you just no longer work there. “When you leave the company, the company will probably wipe your cell phone, and they’ll probably wipe everything,” Maltby says. “Pictures of your kids, bank records, and God knows what else have been erased forever.”
The takeaway: Actually read your employer’s electronic use and BYOD policies. And back up those photos somewhere else.