legality of employer snooping

I’m an employer. I suspected an employee of stealing, and I dug through his hard disk for evidence. I found it in spades. I won’t get into the details, but I’m so furious that someone I trusted could so grossly abuse me. Anyway, the details I found were from temporary files left over from hotmail accesses. I.e. this was his personal account, and access was probably done on his personal time. However, the computer belongs to the company and I assume that makes my search legal. Or was it? I’m in California.


I’m guessing (Take note of that! This is a guess!) that it depends on how convincing your evidence that he WAS stealing. For instance, if you based it on “I didn’t like him”, you probably violated SOMEthing…

Take this with a HUGE grain of salt. But, for what it’s worth, I don’t blame ya for taking a peak. Employers have rights too.

The evidence is incontravertable. Perhaps later I’ll rage about this in MPSIMS or the Pit or something. It’s frigging unbelievable.

But for now, I’ve got to confront the guy, and I’m not sure whether I should drop the evidence in front of him or come up with some other vague excuse for knowing what I know. My first instict is just to show him the evidence, but I want to be sure that if this goes into legal channels that he isn’t able to argue that I didn’t have a right to search his personal files.

A lot of corporate employers get staff to sign computer and internet misuse policies to cover themselves for this. In the UK it’s legal to search company computers used by staff if you have ‘reasonable suspicion’ of misuse.

Some (UK-specific) advice

IANAL, but I did do some research on the subject back in college, and unless things have radically changed very recently in California, what you did was completely legal. The only way what you did was not legal was if you had already guaranteed to your employees that you would not snoop in the computers.

The relevant case is Shoars v. Epson Am., 1990. In it, the California court determined that there was no right to privacy in email stored on company-owned systems.

Any other advice? Thanks.

Sure, tell this to your attorney Monday morning and follow the procedure he/she advises.
But you already knew that.

Yes, a few suggestions.

Just because he used a computer to steal doesn’t mean he’s not capable of violence. He’s been caught and you are going to confront him. Do several things.

  1. Confront him with more than one witness.
  2. Have an audiocasette recorder going when you confront him, and upon turning it on inform him that you are going to record the meeting.
  3. Have your attorney present when you do this. ( #2 may not be legal, best to ask him. Me, I’d record the whole blessed affair ).
  4. REMOVE the entire computer from this person’s office before confronting him. As mentioned above, don’t assume this person won’t take a violent way out and attempt to destroy or forceably remove it to destroy the evidence.
  5. Call the police beforehand, or have your attorney call them and ask if they wish to be present when he is confronted.

Just some thoughts.


Just a thought, Bill; do you have backup tapes of all that’s on his computer?

beatle’s right. Your first reaction might be to go in there and wipe out all reminders of how you got robbed.
Fight that feeling.
It’s evidence that may come in very, very handy if this disgruntled employee decides to take legal action.
Lock that evidence up in a safe or a safe deposit box and hold it for at least a few years (your attorney will help you here).
If you are reading this today (Sunday) it might be a good time to stroll down to work and do this.

At my workplace there was an employee who decided to surf the web for porn (strike one!), but then the idiot decided to store some select pics in his folder on a shared network drive (strike two!). Some coworkers found these pics, reported them to the management who then called me, the System Admin, to investigate. I made some copies for evidence (stop snickering :)), and pulled the guys internet logs… The funny thing was when the guy got to work the managers confronted him, he denied it all. He then went back to his desk and started deleting the pics from the network drive (strike 3). He then denied deleting the files (umm, strike 4?). He didn’t know we had file deletion auditing enabled on the server, so I saved those records as well. He was dismissed…

Bottom line is preserve evidence. People will freak when they are confronted. Depending on what it is worth to you, you may want to pull the hard drive and send it to a IT security consultant who can really dig through the hard drive and present all deleted files, etc for your evidence. Some people may say “oh, you can do that yourself with Norton Undelete” but a professional would be better suited for something of this importance.

Oh, and get a lawyer. My opinion is worth exactly what you paid for it :slight_smile:

beatle wrote

Yes, in fact the snooping was from the tapes.

Cartooniverse wrote

I’ve thought alot about that as well, and I’ll take appropriate cautions.

Thanks, all. If anyone’s interested, the lawyer said the snooping was completely legal (and appropriate), as it was my equipment.

They also said I should shut up about the whole thing, at least for the time being. So much as I’m eager to rant about details, I’m afraid that the best I can say is “frigging unbelievable”.

Out of curiousity, do you mean that he was stealing actual physical objects or that he was using a company computer to use Hotmail/web surf?

My sister got canned from a state job because she wrote emails to her friends that her boss was an asshole. Well, he proved it by reading the messages in her email box and firing her. He must have felt slightly guilty because shortly afterward he called and gave her the option to resign.

I can’t give details. I’m sorry; it really is a wild story. However, it has as happy an ending as it could. Here’s about the best I can say:

  • The severity of this issue was quite high, in the 10s of thousands of dollars.
  • The employee has made everything right.
  • The employee has also left the company.
  • Surprisingly, we separated on a very corgial basis. Surprising for both parties, actually.

On a personal level, between last Friday and Tuesday, I literally slept 1 or 2 hours per night, I was so consumed with this whole thing. Yesterday everything was resolved and I had a good nights sleep.

Thanks to those who offered suggestions.