<Ryan Pesch, MJLST Staff Member
I’m sure I am not alone in remembering the constant urgings to be careful what I post online. I was told not to send anything in an email I wouldn’t want made public, and I guess it made some sense that the internet was commonly viewed as a sort of public forum. It was the place teens went to be relieve their angst, to post pictures, and to exchange messages. But the demographic of people that use the internet is constantly growing. My mom and sister communicate their garden interests using Pinterest (despite the fact that my mom needs help to download her new podcasts), and as yesterday’s teens become today’s adults, what people are comfortable putting online continues to expand. For example, the advent of online finances illustrate that the online world is about so much more than frivolity. The truth of the matter is that the internet shapes the way we think about ourselves. And as Lisa Durham Taylor observed in her article for MJLST in the spring of 2014, the courts are taking notice.
The article concerns the role of internet privacy in the employment context, noting that where once a company could monitor its employee’s computer activity with impunity (after all, it was being done on the company time and with company resources), courts have recently realized that the internet stands for more than dalliance. In it, Taylor notes that the connectedness of employees brings with it both advantages and disadvantages to the corporation. It both helps and hinders productivity, offering a more efficient way of accomplishing a task, but providing the material for procrastination in an accompanying hand. When the line blurs, and people start using company time for personal acts, the line-drawing can get tricky. Companies have an important interest in preserving the confidentiality of their work, but courts have recently been drawing the lines to favor the employee over the employer. This is in stark contrast to the early decisions, which gave companies a broad right to discharge an “at-will” employee and found that there was no expectation of privacy in the workplace. Luckily, courts are beginning to recognize that the nature of a person’s online interactions make the company’s snooping more analogous to going through an employee’s personal possessions than it is to monitoring an employee’s efficiency.
I would add into the picture the recently-decided Supreme Court case of Riley v. California, where the Court held that a police needed a warrant to search a suspect’s phone. The Court said that there was not reasonable cause to search a cell phone because the nature of the technology means that the police would be violating more than necessary to conduct normal business. They likened it to previous restrictions which prevented police from searching locked possessions incident to arrest, and sarcastically observed that cell phones have become “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” The “vast quantities of personal information” and the fact that the phone itself is not a weapon make its taking unjustified in the course of a normal search.
This respect for the data of individuals seems to be signaling a new and incredibly complicated age of law. When does a person have the right to protect their data? When can that protection be broken? As discussed in a recent post on this blog, there is an ongoing debate about what to do with the data of decedents. To me, a conservative approach makes the most sense, especially in context with the cases discussed by Lisa Taylor and the decision in Riley v. California. However, courts have sided with those seeking access because the nature of a will grants the property of the deceased to the heirs, which has been extended to online “property.” What Rebecca Cummings points out to help swing the balance back in favor of privacy, is that it is not just the property of the deceased to which you are granting access. The nature of email means that a person’s inbox has copies of letters from others which may have never been intended for the eyes of someone else.
I can only imagine the number of people who, had they the presence of mind to consider this eventuality, would act differently either in the writing of their will or their management of their communications. I am sure that this is already something lawyers advise their clients about when discussing their plans for their estate, but for many, death comes before they have the chance to fully consider these things. As generations who have grown up on the internet start to encounter the issue in earnest, I have no doubt that the message will spread, but I can’t help but feel it should be spreading already. So: what would your heirs find tucked away in the back of your online closet? And if the answer to that is something you’d rather not think about, perhaps we should support the shift to privacy in more aspects of the digital world.