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U.S. court ruling a warning to companies on workers' Facebook privacy

Antone Gonsalves | Sept. 16, 2013
Decision expected to be influential because few courts have tackled how law such as the Stored Communications Act applies to social media

Caruso, who was friends with Ronco, but not his boss, never asked to be informed of Ehling's Facebook activity and never asked for the screenshots. "In fact, Caruso was surprised that Ronco showed him plaintiff's Facebook posts," federal Judge William J. Martini said in his ruling.

Nevertheless, the court found that the postings were private and protected by the Stored Communications Act, because Ehling had configured her Facebook settings, so only her "friends" could see writings.

Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of MONOC based on an exception in the Stored Communications Act, which is part of the federal Electronics Communications Privacy Act. Because Ronco was authorized to see the postings, he could share them with other people, including Ehling's employer.

"The court said there's no liability because she authorized the spy to see [the posts," said David Straite, a digital privacy lawyer for the law firm Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer. "And that's important. This spy had no obligation to keep her private thoughts private."

Had MONOC management coerced Ronco into providing the screenshots or had asked for them, then the company would have been guilty of violating Ehling's privacy. Under the SCA, the company would then be liable for punitive damages and lawyer fees.

"Sometimes, frankly, that's all you need to attract plaintiff lawyers to a claim," Quackenboss said.

The court did not address the issue of whether a company would violate an employee's privacy, if the employer had hired someone to spy on workers' Facebook postings.

However, the ruling is an indicator that the federal courts would see that as a conscious attempt to underhandedly bypass people's privacy settings of social media. "It's just a step short of coercion," Quackenboss said.

 

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