This last week was pretty good regarding the Supreme Court. As I reported on Wednesday, the Court found that the police could not just search the phones of people they arrest. They have to have a search warrant. But the same day, Corey Robin noted that, Supreme Court rules: the Government Can’t Search Your Cellphone Without a Warrant; the Boss Can. That’s right. Four years ago, the Supreme Court unanimously found that an employer could search your cell phone.
Now the case at hand is not all that clear. It involved a police officer who was using an employer provided phone. But as Robin noted, that really wasn’t part of the decision. If it had been a personal phone, the reasoning would have been the same. The Court didn’t say, “Because the phone belonged to the force…” What’s more, the case itself stinks. The officer was given some device that I’ll call a phone that was able to send text messages. He and all the other officers were told that they shouldn’t expect their messages to be private, but that it was okay to use them for personal matters. What’s more, if they went over the allowed number of texts, they had to pay for them.
Well, this officer went over them month after month and his supervisor got tired of collecting the money. So he got all the records, saw that the vast majority of them were personal and disciplined the officer. The real problem I see here is that all the power is given to the employer. The employer never set a level of “personal use” that was unacceptable. The one thing that was required (paying for the overages), the officer did. The Supreme Court said that it was fine to do this if it was for a “legitimate work-related purpose.” I just don’t see this as legitimate.
The supervisor could have changed the rules. He could have said that anyone who went over their allotted number of texts would have them checked to see what they were. That would have given the officer time to change his behavior. But instead, the supervisor was simply annoyed and so pried into the personal matters of the officer. A supervisor being annoyed at a subordinate does not sound like a “legitimate work-related purpose” to me. But to the power elites at the Supreme Court, I guess it does.
The wider point of all this is that oppression by the government is not the only kind of oppression there is. When the United States was formed, that was much more true. If you didn’t like your work options, you could, “Go west, young man!” But now workers don’t really have choices. Pretty much any reasonably sized company infringes on employees in much the same way. Now it happens before you even get hired. Companies want to do background checks, credit checks, Twitter and Facebook checks! That is almost all ridiculous and of little value to the employer.
Yet it seems that the Supreme Court really is stuck in the past. It’s nice that this week they updated the idea of your home to include your cell phone when it comes to government intervention. But more and more it is your employer and not the government that is the greatest threat to your liberty and privacy.