A question of internet privacy

March 16, 2009 8:43:28 PM PDT
When waiter Brian Pietrylo started his MySpace discussion group, he took precautions to ensure it was private. Only fellow-workers at a Houston restaurant in Hackensack could sign on, and only if invited.

"I was very intent on making sure that it was perfectly private, that nothing was shown publicly," Pietrylo said.

The site became popular with workers who could sign on using a personal password. The chats ranged from satirical to derogatory, often directed at the managers.

Waitress Doreen Marino, Pietrylo's girlfriend, was among more than 18 workers who posted negative comments on the site.

What they didn't know at the time was that one of the workers invited into the site showed it to the boss.

According to court documents, she gave management her password concerned that if she refused, she "would have gotten into some kind of trouble." That password allowed managers to read all the private postings.

"We didn't expect that we had spying eyes, that we were being monitored." Marino said.

Soon after, management fired Brian and Doreen for damaging worker morale and violating Houston's "core values of professionalism and a positive mental attitude."

The two felt the managers crossed the line by spying on them outside of work. They're suing the owners, Hillstone Restaurant Group, for invasion of privacy.

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"What's important to me is setting the grounds as to how far an employer can go into someone's private life into their private group or into their e-mail and use whatever's in there against them to fire them," Marino said.

"Houston's had an obligation once they learned about this to see what was going on," cyberspace attorney Parry Aftab said.

Aftab said MySpace users have no claim to privacy.

"Even if you have a password protected by invite only group, MySpace can see it. Law enforcement can see it. Lots of different people can have access to it and share passwords all the time," Aftab said.

But a federal court judge says the claim could have merit. She set a June trial date. The outcome could set legal boundaries for private internet forums.

"It's about the issues between an employee's or a person's right to privacy juxtaposed with the competing interest of the business running their business the way they see fit," the plaintiffs' attorney Fred Pisani said.