Electronic Mail Stirs Debate on the Privacy Issue


The proliferation of electronic communications--from telephone voicemail to facsimile machines to computer messages--is raising new questions of privacy that are leading to a growing number of legal disputes.

Earlier this year, the mayor of Colorado Springs, Colo., acknowledged that he routinely read electronic messages that city council members sent one another on city-bought computer terminals installed in their homes.

A lawsuit by a former employee of Torrance-based Epson America is the latest action to focus on the privacy rights of employees who send electronic messages--so-called E-mail--to one another over the company's computer system.

Alana Shoars filed a pair of lawsuits, one in March and another in April, charging Epson America and two managers with invasion of privacy under the California Penal Code. She alleges in the suits, filed in Superior Court in Torrance, that a manager eavesdropped on her private E-mail and that of a number of the company's other 700 employees. Shoars contends that she was fired after discovering the manager monitoring messages that she assumed were confidential. The company denies the allegations.

These and other incidents have raised thorny legal issues dealing with what is public and what is private, experts say. They also may undermine public confidence in computer technology, which is constantly creating new communications services, some fear.

In the case of voicemail--the sending of voice messages by telephone--computer "hackers" have managed to penetrate some corporate systems and plant messages aimed at frightening employees. There have been cases, too, of people overhearing their neighbors' supposedly private cellular telephone conversations.

Responding to previous incidents and concerns, Congress in 1986 enacted legislation to protect the privacy of users of electronic mail, paging devices, cellular mobile telephones and computer transmissions. The ground-breaking Electronic Communications Privacy Act gives users of these new forms of communications generally the same privacy rights as those granted to those using first-class mail. But it focuses mainly on public systems, such as that in Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs is one of a number of cities, including Santa Monica, that have set up computer-messaging systems. These systems are designed, in part, to enable residents to look up public documents and comment on public-policy issues from terminals at home or in such public places as municipal libraries or city hall.

Colorado Springs also provided terminals to city council members for use in their homes. Many of them routinely communicated back and forth through the city hall computer--messages that Mayor Robert Isaac admitted that he routinely monitored.

Isaac said he was concerned that some members might be using the system in violation of Colorado open-meeting laws.

In the Epson case, Noel Shipman, Shoars' attorney, said his client was employed as an electronic mail administrator at the U.S. headquarters of the Japanese-owned maker of computer printers. Epson's plants used MCI Mail, one of a number of long-distance messaging networks linking millions of computer terminals around the world, as its E-Mail system. The confidentiality of MCI Mail messages is maintained through use of passwords.

Shipman said Shoars' supervisor at Epson "read and printed thousands of confidential messages" sent by the "nearly 700 employees" signed on to the system. She said she was fired after she discovered the supervisor monitoring messages and, as she put it, "refused to cooperate . . . in his violation of . . . privacy."

Shoars was fired Jan. 25 for "gross misconduct and insubordination," according to her suits.

Epson, in a statement issued Tuesday, called Shoars' allegations "completely without merit" and denied that "the privacy of electronic mail had anything to do with Ms. Shoars' termination." Epson filed a motion to dismiss the case, which is pending.

Shoars' lawsuit seeks unspecified financial damages. Shipman said a similar class-action lawsuit may be filed on behalf of Epson employees.

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