Can an employer disclose private information viewed on a company computer?

UPDATED: Jul 20, 2010

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Can an employer disclose private information viewed on a company computer?

I had some private chats with a co-worker on a company computer (stupid of us). We discussed other coworkers and when my boss chose to review the screenshots and saw the chats, he decided to tell the other employees what we had said about them. Furthermore, he threatened to tell my co-worker’s wife about something he had said (didn’t specify what), saying “Oh, she’ll care!” My friend says this is harassment. Clearly we shouldn’t have shared personal stuff on the computer. Does that mean my boss has carte blanche to reshare that private information? What if it had been a private medical result?

Asked on July 20, 2010 under Employment Labor Law, Louisiana


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 12 years ago | Contributor

Unfortunately, as you surmised, if exchanged messages on a company computer, it is not private. While it was inappropriate for your employer to share the information with other people, it's not clear that he had any legal duty or obligation to not do so. The information was not obtained in a context which would extend or even imply a legal  duty to keep it confidential, such as, for example, when someone fills in their current or last salary or social security number when applying for a job; the context obligates the recipient to use the information only for the stated purpose, the job application. Here though, the situation is closer to that of the two of you being overheard while chatting by the water cooler; someone overhearing a public conversation generally can repeat or transmit it to others.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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