• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Privacy and Context

Faculty members' phones.

April 1, 2016

Should your employer be able to search your phone at any time?

Apparently the public colleges in Minnesota are claiming a right to search any device -- even personally owned ones -- that contain any work-related email, texts, or data.  The faculty union is crying foul.

I’m with the union on this one. The rule is both offensive and impractical.

The offensiveness should be obvious. Smartphones contain personal information of all kinds, much of which is nobody else’s business. (For present purposes, I’ll leave the NSA out of it.) That’s why people buy them. I drive my car to work, but that doesn’t mean my car belongs to my employer. Neither does my phone.

On a practical level, many of us use enough different devices over time that even if you wanted to, going back and reconstructing everything might not be possible. “Records retention” policies don’t cover personal devices, so some of those devices have gone away over the years.  

If they are the property of the employer, the employer should have paid for them. (That’s why my objection doesn’t hold for office computers supplied by the employer. Those are fair game.) If they are not, the employer has no claim to them.  

Besides, aren’t employee emails stored on servers? Why bother going through devices when you have the servers? I assume that’s why Hillary went to all that trouble.

I can remember being taught that the idea of “separate spheres” was patriarchal, and that the personal was political. That made sense in a different historical moment, when “privacy” cloaked tremendous abuse, and the public sphere was relatively narrow. In this moment, though, maintaining some sort of private life -- some sort of separation of spheres -- is the urgent need.  At this point, the threat of random surveillance is far greater than the threat of obscurity.

When I use a home laptop to check my work email, I’m going above and beyond; I’m doing my employer a favor.  I do that a lot, because I’m conscientious.  But if that favor were construed as handing over any privacy right I had, I’d stop doing it.  

No. Minnesota needs to drop this. Employer-provided computers in offices, yes. Employees’ personal devices, paid for by employees?  No.


Smartphones change the game on recording classes, too. Many campuses have policies forbidding the recording of a class without the permission of the instructor, and even when that permission is given, it’s subject to conditions. Policies like those were relatively easy to enforce back when the technology to take a video was big and bulky.

Now, though, more students in a given class have easy video recording technology with them than don’t.  They can do it surreptitiously without any great effort, and can distribute the video around the world instantly.  Every so often a story breaks in which a student secretly recorded a professor saying or doing something in class that seems ridiculous or offensive on video.

I say “seems” because I used to teach poli sci.  When teaching a course on political ideologies, for example, I’d cover marxism, fascism, libertarianism, monarchism, and anarchism, among other things.  To help students understand how a given idea worked, I’d role-play someone who believed it.  It wouldn’t be for the entire period, and it would change from week to week.  But if you didn’t have that context, it would have been easy enough to excerpt five minutes of video from, say, fascism week, and to insinuate all sorts of things.  With the loss of the ability to frame the information comes the loss of the ability to protect it.  I’d be a lot more hesitant to do something like that now, even though it led to some great classroom moments.

It’s similar to showing five minutes of a murder mystery, and accusing the actor of murder. Out of context, it could look like that. But context matters.

A few years ago, I had greater faith in the ability of audiences to evolve and become more sophisticated about what they saw. This election year is testing that faith. I don’t have an easy answer to the issue of classroom recording by students, but I have a clear answer to the Minnesota system: no.


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