Using a work phone at home? Watch out
AJ Gigster Dec 20, 2017

Carrying around both a personal phone and work phone can be a pain and feel redundant, especially if both you and your employer like the Samsung Galaxy S5.

The temptation to save a hundred bucks a month by ditching your personal phone might seem like a frugal move. Or your employer gives you the option of using your own phone for work and they’ll cover the bills. Either way would cut down on your cellphone costs and save space in your pocket.

Using an employer’s device has unforeseen consequences

So what exactly can your company do to that phone they issued you, and the information stored on it?

“The flip answer is ‘damn near anything they please,'” says J. Christopher Erb, an attorney and principal at Erb Law Firm PC in Paoli, Pennsylvania.

Laws covering what an employer can and cannot do are different depending on the state in which you work, Erb says, but “most states recognize that if it’s employer-provided equipment, the employer is going to have a lot of leeway to monitor, clear off or even brick a device they’ve given you.”

You can check your state’s regulations by contacting the state attorney general, says Erb, but some states, especially those not known to lean toward regulations, won’t have any laws in place yet.

Few restraints on employers

Employer snooping could go a lot further than that, says Schumacher.

“They could track you based on your location through your GPS,” Schumacher says. “It’s tough to say for certain if a company could access your personal email account, but there is a way that some controlling software will allow them to control the camera.”

Feeling paranoid yet? Fortunately, most companies aren’t going to go that far, says Erb, who primarily advises employers. Plus, most companies will have a written policy about what they will and won’t do on a phone they give you. This keeps employees aware but also protects them in case there’s litigation down the line.

“A lot of that is to set the stage for when the employer does something — they’re making sure the employee knew or potentially knew it was coming,” says Erb.

There’s also a reasonable expectation of privacy. If your boss doesn’t mind you calling home on the landline at your desk, most likely they’re not going to bat an eye at you texting your mother every once in a while, even if an employer is monitoring your text messages.

Bringing your own device

If your company lets you bring your phone to work and covers the bills, be careful what your employer asks of you and that device, says Erb. He’s seen companies try to get employees to put technology on their personal devices that would allow an employer to brick or clear off your phone — yes, your personal phone — at any time.

Bring your own device, or BYOD, may be a short-lived trend, though, thanks in part to a recent Supreme Court decision where the justices unanimously ruled that police must get a warrant to search someone’s cellphone.

“Modern cellphones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet or a purse,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion for the court.

The ruling has had much broader implications in digital privacy.

“When a corporation gives you your iPhone, it’s still their iPhone,” says Max Silber, executive director of mobility at MetTel, a telecom consulting company. “But when you bring your own device, it’s under your account and it’s under your name. You are the owner. If (the corporation) obtained any personal information, you could now file a suit against them from infringing on your privacy.”

How to protect yourself

1. Understand your company’s policy. If you were given an employee handbook, look there. If not, ask your human resources department if such a policy exists. It will give you guidance on what you can and cannot do, and what your employer will and won’t do.

2. If you’re starting a new job, make sure you read anything they want you to sign before starting that job, especially if they give a BYOD option.

“When you’ve just gotten that brand-new job and you have that piece of paper shoved in front of you, it may be hard to think down the road that they may wipe your personal phone,” Erb says.

If you’re not comfortable with what they’re asking, push for them to provide a device to you instead of making your phone theirs.

3. Back up critical personal data, such as contacts and pictures, stored on your phone to your home computer. If you quit or are fired, an employer could remotely brick or wipe the phone and not give that data back to you.

4. Use a little common sense about what you do on an employer device. While texting your mother on an employer-provided cellphone probably won’t get you fired, sexting your girlfriend could. If you wouldn’t send it through a work email, don’t send it over a work phone.

And if you’re not comfortable having your employer poke his or her nose into your personal life on that work phone? Keep your own phone. It may make your pockets a little heavier, but it could be worth that extra peace of mind.