By: The Federal Practice Group
An increasing number of government officials have been caught using a personal e-mail server or their cell phone to transfer confidential federal information. In this era, it has never been easier to access the private information of various government agencies. Such confidential documents and communications used to be solely stored in physical form, which could be put under lock and key. In the past, anyone interested in accessing this information would have to risk entering top-security buildings in order to get anywhere near it.
However, most communications are now digital, conducted over cell phones, laptops, and tablets by people who may not understand how such devices work. The current political atmosphere is fraught with charges of government “leaks,” and the current administration’s press secretary has approved random phone searches of staff. Many are now wondering about the legality of such a search and whether or not they should comply if they are chosen for the next sweep.
Federal employees are obligated to comply with lawful directions, orders, and instructions from their supervisors. Even if this random search is eventually ruled unconstitutional in a court of law, you must comply with it before you can pursue legal action. After all, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the agency that reviews disciplinary action against federal employees, has a history of ruling against any employee for disobeying a supervisory instruction, no matter the reason.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
The first thing you can do to prevent any disciplinary action is to keep your personal and work communications separate. You should also be aware this mandate only applies to your government-issued technology, meaning your own personal devices are safe from search-and-seizure. However, just to be safe, keep your own devices locked safely in your car when you go to work.
Be vigilant when you experience one of these random searches. If you believe it is not random, and that a particular group of employees is being targeted based on age, sex, race, religion, national origin, disability, political officiation, sexual orientation, or in response to opposing or reporting discrimination or fraud, waste, or abuse, the search could be ruled unlawful. You would have the right to seek compensation for that discrimination through an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, the Office of Special Counsel complaint, or other means.
Make sure you understand your rights and responsibilities. If you’re concerned about the legality of your agency’s actions, contact one of our Federal employment law attorneys for a case consultation. We are widely recognized for our superior advocacy and effective legal strategies. Contact us at (202) 862-4360 or fill out our online form with your case details. We look forward to hearing about your situation.