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BYOD Lawsuits Loom as Work Gets Personal

Tom Kaneshige | April 23, 2013
Will BYOD lead to a rash of lawsuits from employees who feel violated? Or maybe a headline-grabbing, class-action lawsuit? Your company better make sure it has an explicit terms-of-use BYOD agreement. Here are ways companies can protect themselves.

Like most tragic love stories, the "Bring Your Own Device" affair has come to an abrupt end, a bitter breakup looms, and lawyers are circling.

In the early days of BYOD, say, last year, employees- especially Millennials-fell madly in love with the idea of using their own iPhones, Android smartphones and newfangled tablets for work. They could finally ditch corporate-issued BlackBerrys. BYOD ushered in a new era of consumer tech in the enterprise, one that promised employees and employers will live happily ever after.

But the BYOD romance has suddenly turned sour.

Employees are questioning the intrusion of corporate eyes on their personal devices. Did IT turn their beloved smartphone into a spy that tracks their whereabouts? Employees are beginning to sense companies taking advantage of BYOD by intruding on personal time to get free work time.

Now they're thinking about suing.

"I anticipate a bunch of little [lawsuits], then something big will happen that'll be a class action and become headline news," says CEO John Marshall at AirWatch, an enterprise mobile device management (MDM) vendor with 6,500 customers, including Lowe's, United Airlines and Best Buy.

It has already started. A lawsuit currently winding its way in a federal court in Chicago claims that the city owes some 200 police officers millions of dollars in overtime back pay because officers were pressured into answering work-related calls and emails over department-issued BlackBerrys during off-hours.

While this particular case doesn't involve BYOD, there's no question BYOD blurs the line even more between work life and personal life.

If a CIO has hourly employees with BYOD smartphones, she might want to leverage MDM to control email delivery to those devices. That is, an employer can set a business rule that won't allow delivery of corporate email to a subset of users during off-hours. Or a CIO can address this issue in the BYOD terms-of-use agreement.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

While not dispensing legal advice, Marshall offers up another legal nightmare scenario: Lacking MDM tools to block out what can and cannot be seen on a BYOD smartphone, a help desk technician notices that an employee's device has a lot of personal apps about a health problem-and mentions his concern to the employee in the cafeteria.

"The employee can say, 'How in the world did you know that?'" Marshall says. "All of a sudden, something that's very benign and innocuous turns into something that's blown out of proportion."

Again, a comprehensive BYOD terms-of-use agreement, along with transparency about the capabilities and limitations of the technology, will help ward off such scenarios. The IT staff also needs to be educated about their role in a BYOD environment, says Marshall.


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