Court to Boss: Keep Your Eyes Off Employee’s E-Mail

Workers seen at the Mellanox Technologies in Yokneam. Mellanox is a leading supplier of end-to-end InfiniBand and Ethernet interconnect solutions. January 15, 2013. Photo by Moshe Shai/FLASH90 *** Local Caption *** çáøú îìàðå÷ñ éå÷ðòí îçùá
Workers seen at work on the computer at the Mellanox Technologies in Yokneam, Israel. (Illustrative: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

In offices, many times multiple users will use the same computer for their work – and sometimes, a worker will forget to close their e-mail accounts, leaving their messages in full view of everyone. But just because someone has left their mail screen open does not mean that the messages can or should be read by anyone, the High Court decided Wednesday.

In the case presented, a company sought to sue a former employee for stealing customer accounts and sending them to a company owned by his son. Much of the evidence that this had actually happened was taken off a computer that had been used by the employee. Among the messages were many sent by him to his son, on a screen that had not been logged out of. Company officials printed out the messages and presented them to the High Court – which said they could not be used as evidence, overturning a lower court decision.

Judge Noam Solberg, who was presiding over the discussion, said that forgetfulness or neglect was not an excuse to invade private data, no matter how justified. “If someone forgets their appointment book at an event, does that mean anyone who finds it has a right to read it? Does the fact that it was left there mean that he wanted people to read it? Certainly not. The finder of such information must assume that it was forgotten in error, and does not mean he agreed to the invasion of privacy.”

Had the worker still been employed by the firm, a case could have been made for allowing the company to use the messages, based on previous court decisions. However, in this case, there could be no mistaking the likelihood that the worker meant to keep the information private.