Caught on Camera
Video surveillance may reduce embezzlement, but is it an invasion of privacy?

Churches are experiencing embezzlement at an alarming rate. Sometimes, church leaders who suspect embezzlement install hidden video cameras in an attempt to identify the embezzler. A camera may be hidden in a room that is used by volunteers to count offerings, or it may be in the office of a church bookkeeper or other employee who is suspected of embezzling funds. Can the use of hidden cameras expose a church to liability for "invasion of privacy"? If so, how can this risk be reduced? These questions were addressed by the California Supreme Court in a recent case—Hernandez v. Hillsides, Inc., 97 Cal.Rptr.3d 274 (Cal. 2009).

A California case. A nonprofit church-affiliated organization (the "employer") operated a residential facility for abused children, including the victims of sexual abuse. Many of the children had been exposed to or participated in child pornography.

The employer adopted a computer policy to prevent employees from using employer- provided computers in a manner that defamed, harassed, or harmed others, or that subjected the company to "significant legal exposure." Illegal and inappropriate activity was prohibited, such as accessing sexually offensive websites or displaying, downloading, or distributing sexually explicit material. The policy warned employees that they had "no reasonable expectation of privacy in any use of Company computers, network and system." Along the same lines, the policy advised that all data created, transmitted, downloaded, or stored on the system was the employer's property, and that it could "monitor and record employee activity on its computers, network and email systems," including "email messages, files stored or transmitted, and websites accessed."

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Posted: September 1, 2010
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