Last week, Jack Cunningham, a county clerk in suburban Chicago, pleaded guilty to an ethics violation after using county Wi-Fi to answer about a dozen campaign-related emails. In many jurisdictions, including Kane County, public officials may not conduct campaign-related work while on the job. Because of this, Cunningham will pay a $500 fine plus legal fees. One of his employees lost their job over the matter. But when does a seemingly innocuous use of the office Wi-Fi for personal matters become unethical?
Earlier this year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was investigated for similar charges when a secret wireless router hidden in the office was used to send thousands of campaign-related emails during the workday. The case in Illinois was similarly rooted in political drama—a failed Republican primary opponent filed the complaint against Cunningham—but similar dramas may be coming soon to a private sector near you. Unauthorized use of Wi-Fi is nothing more than office supply theft 2.0. (And here you thought those nifty Command hooks were as advanced as it would get.)
If you want to avoid any trouble at work, actually reading your company’s acceptable-use policy is a good start. Hidden deep within some of those endless first-day forms are some pretty vague policies on things like Wi-Fi that can be used against you. Don’t be afraid to ask your employers about your workplace privacy. They aren’t obligated to share what they do or do not monitor, but most IT departments are happy to field questions about something other than a computer meltdown. And it only takes one vindictive co-worker to question your Wi-Fi ethics. (He’s using our bandwidth to download episodes of True Detective! I saw it with my own eyes!)
In the end, personal use of company Wi-Fi could very well be viewed as theft. If you’re G-chatting with friends, using social media, and streaming content, you’re stealing company resources. If you’re only using your smartphone for work-related items, congratulations! You’re a model employee. (You’re also probably lying.) Checking 12 emails on the taxpayer dime does not seem like a violation worthy of a court appearance, but it happened. Probably should’ve stuck with 4G.