Cell Phones and Memory Sticks and Instant Messaging – Oh My!

Over the past decade, technology advancements have changed the way we communicate with people, store information, listen to music and organize our lives. Cell phones are everywhere – in purses, pockets and belt holsters. At the same time, cell phones are no longer just phones – they can function as an organizer, and address book, a camera, a music player, a web browser, a text messaging service and a word processor. Today, a USB memory stick, which is no bigger than your index finger, can hold more than a gigabyte of information. All of these devices have had a profound effect on communication, privacy and propriety business information. Have your employment policies kept up?

In 2006, more than 80% of the cell phones sold had photo capabilities. Camera phones have created a whole new set of concerns about employee privacy, harassment, discrimination and the theft of confidential information. In 2005, cell phone maker Samsung banned camera phones in its workplace due to concerns about the safety of propriety company information. In other words, employees couldn’t even bring the company’s own product to work!

Portable storage devices, such as USB memory sticks, compact flash drives, MP3 players and iPods, pose some of the greatest threats to a company’s network and information systems. All of these seemingly harmless devices give individuals the ability to download large amounts of private company information. Memory sticks, which are being integrated into key chains, pocket knives and watches, can hold a company’s entire customer database. Companies that permit employees to use PDAs to store contact information, documents and calendaring information, need to make sure that information isn’t walking out the door when the employment relationship is terminated.

By now, most employers and employees are aware of problems that e-mail can create. Even though e-mail may seem like an informal form of communication, it creates a documented record of conversations between co-workers. Instant messaging, which takes place on a comment-by-comment basis, also memorializes conversations between co-workers. In many ways, instant message can be far worse, because employees often give very little thought to their responses, due to its informal feel. However, e-mails and instant messages are often subpoenaed during the course of litigation, especially in discrimination and harassment cases.

While, as employment lawyers, we are no suggesting an outright ban on camera phones and other forms of technology, we are suggesting employers take the time to carefully evaluate the potential pitfalls of these devices and take appropriate action. At a minimum, a company’s employee handbook should contain policies regarding the use of cell phones and camera phones. Employers should also consider developing policies about the use of e-mail and instant messaging, including content and retention.

This article is intended for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice. Always contact your legal counsel for advice or answers to your questions.

Weld Riley, S.C. was founded in 1991. The firm consists of lawyers across four offices (Eau Claire, Menomonie, Wausau and Black River Falls) and offers a full range of legal services, including labor and employment, business law, estate planning, tax representation, municipal law, mining and mineral rights, environmental law, banking and creditor rights, civil litigation, criminal defense, immigration, and family law.