Should users have the presumption of privacy?

In our company computer manual, it's clearly stated that users should make no presumption of privacy when it comes to e-mail or any other data that might reside on their computers' hard drives. We don't have this policy to suggest we're going to snoop or monitor their computer use (something we -- or I -- don't do, by the way), but rather to let it be known that all data on a company computer is subject to be seen by another's eyes.

Accessing e-mail is the most obvious and common instance of one person looking through another's files. When a person is on vacation, for example, and a design project is well underway, one engineer might have good cause to look through another's e-mail to keep the project going or answer a client's questions. In the process, however, one never knows who might also happen across those e-mails from friends and family, or any number of other sources.

In my e-mail, for example, should someone have reason to look through it, he would surely see the newsletters from TechRepublic to which I subscribe, the weekly football picks with my brother, or any number of other private communications. There's nothing there, however, that I specifically wouldn't want another person to see, or nothing I wouldn't freely talk about with just about anyone.

Obviously, we don't have a policy against using company time or equipment for personal use, but we all know that it might not always be private. I suppose we treat such things in a similar manner to personal phone calls or idle chitchat around the proverbial water cooler. As long as deadlines are met, quality remains high, clients and customers are kept satisfied, and billings aren't needlessly affected, all such things are never even noticed. A personal e-mail isn't much different than a personal phone call. And bidding on an ebay auction that ends at three P.M. is different than running an ebay business during work hours. As long as it's not abused and doesn't interfere with the person's obligations, it's just part of corporate life in the 21st century.

When it comes to servicing or upgrading users' computers, their personal data is especially made vulnerable, so to speak, to another's prying eyes (namely mine). I sure don't go out of my way to make it known that I don't snoop, but I think everyone knows that I don't. In the normal course of importing old e-mails and transferring files from one computer to another, for example, someone in my position can't help but notice any number of personal files flying by, but that's about as far as it goes. Heck, I don't have time to look at pictures from my last family reunion. Why on earth would I care to look at someone else's?

Perhaps the biggest thing I do that might send the message that I neither snoop nor care what kind of personal data might reside on someone's computer is my quick willingness to let anyone else have mine for the day should theirs be experiencing some problems. If you trust people with your stuff, so to speak, they're probably more apt to trust you with theirs. Besides, if they want to snoop through my computer or e-mail, I couldn't care less - as long as they give me the credit if they use my weekly football picks to win their football pool!