Employees cannot delete files without permission, says U.S. court

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Employees cannot delete files without permission, says U.S. court

The Seventh Circuit United States Appeals Court has ruled that employees cannot unlawfully delete their computers before handing them back to their employers. International Airport Centers (IAC) sued Jacob Citrin, a former employee, after he returned a laptop whose contents had been erased with a deletion program.

In a three to none decision the court said that Citrin violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by installing a secure delete program. In addition the court said that Citrin effectively terminated his employment, not when he turned in the laptop, but when he started doing personal business while still being employed at IAC.

During his employment, Citrin was tasked with finding suitable real estate locations for IAC to purchase. He was given a laptop to record information. IAC alleges that he started doing his personal business while still employed at IAC. The company had hoped to find some incriminating evidence on the laptop’s hard drive, but Citrin had installed and used a secure deletion program to cover his tracks.

Citrin says that his employment contract authorized him to “return or destroy” the data in the laptop, but the court said that he ceased to be protected by that contract when he started doing his own work. The appeals court argues that Citrin’s deletion violates the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act because he accessed a protected computer without authorization. Even though the laptop was in his possession, his authorization ceased when he violated his company’s loyalty.

A lower court had thrown out IAC’s lawsuit against Citrin. The Appeals Court decision reverses that ruling and allows the lawsuit to continue.

The full text of the decision is available on the Seventh Circuit Appeals Court website.