Employees at Harvard University are in an uproar because administrators searched through their e-mails. They’re right to be upset. But Harvard didn’t violate any laws by combing through their communications, nor did it break any promises it had made. In fact, what the university did is what almost all employers across America have the right to do. The real outrage isn’t what happened at Harvard. It’s that what happened at Harvard can happen anywhere.
If you write a letter to a friend while at work using a company pen and then mail it using a company-owned stamp, it’s still private. (You might be accused of abuse of company time or of stealing the stamp, but the letter itself remains confidential.) Not so with e-mails. Employers typically claim employees should expect no privacy whatsoever. It’s an absurd distinction.