Imagine that, while in a public computer lab, you see that one of your colleagues has left herself logged into her email account.  Not only that, but you see an email thread featuring your very own name.  What do you do?  Do you tell the person?  Do you click on the private email to see what gossip is circulating about yourself?

Those of you who know me may have guessed my choice.  Maybe it is all the Columbo I watched as a child, but I know how to follow a lead when I see one.  According to one New Jersey court, I might not be in the wrong (at least legally).

After Wayne Rogers, a New Jersey teacher, opened a colleague’s private email thread entitled “Wayne Update,” he discovered the following: “I guess [Rogers] chooses not to listen.  I will not respond to him.  He is sooooo fake.  And sooooo with the Dark Side.  I will never tell him “The Truth”, not because he can’t handle it but because he’s too dumb to understand it.  See you later.”

He confronted his fellow teachers about the email (nobody calls Wayne Rogers “sooooo fake”!), and, rather than apologizing, they sued him for violation of New Jersey’s equivalent of the Stored Communications Act (N.J.S.A. 2A: 156A-27). Under the statute, a person is guilty if he (1) knowingly accesses without authorization a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided or (2) exceeds an authorization to access that facility.  The judge in Rogers’ case ruled that, because the other teacher had logged into the email herself, Rogers passed the first prong of the test; however, the judge submitted to the jury the question of whether he had exceeded his authorization.  The jury found that, in forgetting to log off, the coworker had provided “tacit authorization” for Rogers to spy on the email.  The colleague appealed, but the Superior Court of New Jersey upheld the decision.

This story of gossip and betrayal offers a number of important lessons: first, maybe we should leave gossip to the experts (aka teenagers), and refrain from calling our coworkers “fake” and “dumb”; second, if that seems too difficult, we should at least remember to never leave a paper trail.  There will always be a Wayne Rogers or Blair Waldorf around, ready to snoop; and third, we should always log off our email accounts – a jury may conclude that a “public” computer is just that…public.

— Joanna Collins

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