Stealing time: it's in the electronic mail!
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AbstractPhysical face-to-face oral expression inherently makes one immediately accountable for what is said, and body language is a major component of the communication. However, all of us have sent email that we wish we could have later retracted and expunged. Without the immediacy and body language, our guard is down and we say things by email, that we would never do face-to-face, or even on paper. Once dispatched, email is out of our control. It can be forwarded to the hundreds of millions of people on the Internet. It can be printed out and archieved indefinitely. Most utility software can recover email messages, and originators can be traced. Crackers and email-list managers can intercept messages and read stored ones. Email is a very public medium indeed. Sending an electronic message to someone may risk sending it to everyone. Earlier Law Now articles on privacy and communications have noted that telephone messages may be legally intercepted if either the receiver or the sender agrees. For private parties such as employers and employees, the "one party consent" rule applies to email as well. The email message can be intercepted if sender or recipient consents. This is not likely to occur often when the employer is conducting surveillance on employees' use of email at work. If a crime is suspected, the employer might persuade the police to obtain a warrant to intercept email, but this too is uncommon. In general, the employer simply wants to monitor employee use of email. Employer monitoring of completed email activity raises the question of who owns email communications sent and received from the employer's equipment. The answer is not surprising: email sent and received on corporate equipment on employer-paid time belongs to the employer. Although of an intangible nature, email is employer property in the same way as personal effects at home belong to their owner. Fruits of paid service to the employer belong to the employer. The law of inventions (patents) and literary creations (copyrights) recognize first rights of ownership in the employer.
Article deposited after permission was granted by the editor of LawNow magazine, 06/28/2010.