USB key treated as a private receptacle by labour tribunal – but why?

17 Apr

On March 29th the Grievance Settlement Board (Ontario) held that a government employer did not breach its collective agreement or the Charter by examining a USB key that it found in the workplace.

They key belonged to an employee who used it to store over 1000 files, some of which were work-related and allegedly confidential and sensitive. Remarkably, the employee also stored sensitive personal information on the key, including passport applications for his two children and a list of his login credentials and passwords. The key was not password protected and not marked in any way that would identify it as belonging to the employee.

The employee lost the key in the workplace. The employer found it. An HR employee inserted they key in her computer to read its contents. She identified the key as possibly belonging to the employee. She gave the key to the employee’s manager, who inserted it in his computer on several occasions. The manager identified that the key contained confidential and sensitive information belonging to the employer. The manager then ordered a forensic investigation. The investigation led to the discovery of a draft of an e-mail that disparaged the manager and had earlier been distributed from an anonymous e-mail account.

The GSB held that the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy – one so limited as not to be as “pronounced” as the expectation recognized in R v Cole. The GSB also held, however, that the employer acted with lawful authority and reasonably. The reasonableness analysis contains some helpful statements for employers, most notably the following statement on the examination of “mixed-use receptacles” (my words):

The Association argues that the search conducted by Mr. Tee was “speculative” and constituted “rummaging around” on the USB key. It asserts that if Mr. Tee had been interested in finding files which might contain government data, he would have or should have searched directories which appeared to be work related, such as EPS, TPAS or CR. I do not find this a persuasive argument. As noted in R. v. Vu, in discussing whether search warrants issued in relation to computers should set out detailed conditions under which the search might be carried out, such an approach does not reflect the reality of computers: see paras. 57 and 58. Given the ease with which files can be misfiled or hidden on a computer, it is difficult to predict where a file relevant to an inquiry will be found. It may be filed within a directory bearing a related name, but if the intention is in fact to hide the file it is unlikely that it will be. Further, the type of file, as identified by the filename extension, is not a guarantee of contents. A photograph, for example can be embedded in a Word document. Provided that the Employer had reasonable cause to view the contents of the USB key in the first place (as I have found there was in this case), an employee who uses the same key for both personal and work related purposes creates and thereby assumes the risk that some of their personal documents may be viewed in the course of an otherwise legitimate search by the employer for work related files or documents.

I learned about this case shortly before it was decided and remarked that it was quite bizarre. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would be so utterly irresponsible to store such sensitive information on a USB key. This is one reason why I’m critical of this decision, which treats this employee’s careless information handling practice as something worthy of protection. The other reason I’m critical of  this decision is that it suggests the expectation of privacy recognized in Cole is higher than contemplated by the Supreme Court of Canada – which remarked that Richard Cole’s expectation of privacy was not “entirely eliminated” by the operational realities of the workplace. Not all of our dealings with information demand privacy protection, and in my view we need to make the reasonable expectation of privacy threshold a real, meaningful threshold so management can exercise its rights without unwarranted scrutiny and litigation.

I also should say that it’s very bad to stick USB keys found lying around (even in the workplace) into work computers (or home computers), at least without being very careful about the malware risk. That’s another reason why USB keys are evil.

Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario (Bhattacharya) v Ontario (Government and Consumer Services), 2016 CanLII 17002 (ON GSB).

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