It may not be a knife or a gun, but a computer is often a choice weapon when an employee decides to commit a crime. Employers that do not have—or consistently enforce—a computer-use policy may face unintended liability.
Case in point: Illegal downloads
A Jacksonville Methodist minister had a private office at his church, and he held two of the three keys to the door. The church administrator carried the other one. No one could enter the office without the minister’s permission, and even the church administrator had only limited access to the office. The church provided the minister with a computer for his pastoral duties. It was not networked to any other church computer.
One day, the church’s Internet service provider called with news that the church’s Internet protocol address had been linked to some outgoing spam. The minister was out of town, so the administrator entered the office, logged on and ran a scan using specialized software. The scan returned some questionable web site addresses. She contacted a parish member who was an information technology specialist. He examined the computer and found child pornography.
The chief of staff for parish relations called the church’s district superintendent, who told him to call police and show them the computer. The minister was told to stay away, and the parish relations chief signed an authorization for police to examine the computer. The chief then arranged a meeting with the minister where police were waiting. The minister was arrested on child pornography charges and fired.
The policy—or lack thereof
The church relied on the Book of Discipline, a standard policy manual for Methodist ministers, to govern church-minister relations. But the Book of Discipline lacked a specific computer policy.
When the criminal case went to trial, the minister moved to suppress the computer files and all conversations that followed because he had not given permission to search the computer, and the police had no warrant. The police countered that they had signed permission from a person representing the computer’s owner, the church.
The court noted the locked office, the lack of networking and, most important, no policy governing computer usage. In total, the court concluded that the minister did in fact have an expectation of privacy when using his computer. As a result, only his permission or a legally executed search warrant would allow police or anyone else to view the computer’s files. Without that evidence, prosecutors dropped the charges.
The minister did not contest his firing, but things could have been much worse for the church. Courts have held that employers can be liable for employees’ Internet criminal acts.
Spell out consequences
Most employee handbooks clearly allow an employer to fire an employee for committing a crime on company time or illegally using company equipment. In this case, the alleged crime was possession of child pornography. Employers can strengthen general handbook statements by specifically mentioning illegal computer and Internet usage such as:
- Viewing, uploading or downloading pornography
- Engaging in online gambling
- Attempting to purchase illegal items, such as pharmaceuticals without a prescription.
Employers also should let employees know that the computer is a work tool and should not be used to surf the Internet for information that is not relevant to the employee’s work. After all, wasting time is stealing from the company, too. While the church in this case was justified in firing the minister, a clear computer policy would have strengthened the prosecutor’s case.
The threat of spreading viruses
Computers are not just tools; they are portals to your business as well. An employee who surfs unsavory web sites may pick up computer viruses that in turn infects other computers. Most likely, a virus the minister picked up on one of his child porn fishing expeditions latched on to his hard drive to send spam from the church’s IP address. Had his computer been networked, the same spam could have gone out from any of the church’s computers.
On the other hand, it’s easier for employers to monitor networked computers. Several software programs are available to track employee computer usage. If you are using such software, inform your employees so they can’t later claim you were spying on them.
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