Keystroke logging (or “keylogging”) is the noting (or logging) of the keys struck on a computer keyboard. Typically, this is done secretly, so  the keyboard user is unaware his activities are being monitored.

Several cases throughout the country have examined an employer’s use of keylogging.  Recently, the Criminal Court of the City of New York held in New York v. Klapper  that an employer who installed keylogging software on office computers and subsequently monitored an employee’s e-mail activity did not, absent some showing of contrary e-mail protections or acceptable use policies, access a computer “without authorization” in violation of New York law. 

In some of the strongest language against the premise of e-mail privacy to date, the Court stated in its April 28, 2010 opinion:

[t]he concept of internet privacy is a fallacy upon which no one should rely. It is today’s reality that a reasonable expectation of internet privacy is lost, upon your affirmative keystroke. 

The Court found that e-mails are more akin to a postcard than a letter, as they are less secure and can easily be viewed by a passerby. An employee who sends an e-mail from a work computer sends a communication that will travel through the employer’s central computer and will be commonly stored on the employer’s server even after it is received and read. Once stored on the server, the employer can easily scan or read all stored e-mails or data. The same holds true once the e-mail reaches its destination, as it travels through the Internet via an Internet service provider. Accordingly, this process diminishes an individual’s expectation of privacy in e-mail communications.

In contrast to the strong language from New York, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in Brahmana v. Lembo that a plaintiff could proceed to trial in his case alleging his employer committed an impermissible “interception” under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) by using keylogging to discover the password to his personal e-mail account, and using the logged password, accessed his personal e-mail.  However, another California District Court found in United States v. Ropp that because the keylogger recorded the keystroke information in transit between the keyboard and the CPU, the system transmitting the information did not affect interstate commerce as the required by the ECPA.  Further complicating the issue, a federal court in Ohio questioned Ropp, suggesting in Porter v. Havlicek that it read the statute too narrowly by requiring the communication to be traveling in interstate commerce as opposed to merely “affecting interstate commerce.”

Because of the numerous issues arising from the use of electronic communications, and the varying court opinions on these questions, employers would do well to reexamine their use of keystroke monitoring or logging technology on a regular basis.