HR Hotline: What to Do About an Ex-Employee’s Encrypted Cell Phone?
Q: After repeated demands, a recently terminated employee finally turned in his company-issued cell phone. However, an encryption program he downloaded is blocking access to essential customer data and preventing us from using the device, and he refuses to provide us with the key to crack the code. Do we have any leverage to resolve this in our favor?
A: You may be able to take some steps that should be rather compelling in appearance, if not fact, to make him see the virtues in cooperating with you.
A rarely-applied state law deals with computer crime or computer-related offenses—specifically, “interruption of services.”
Interruption of services is committed when a person, “…without authorization, intentionally or recklessly disrupts or degrades or causes the disruption or degradation of computer services or denies or causes the denial of computer services to an authorized user of a computer system.”
Cell phones, which are increasingly programmable and can accept, process, and transfer data, are likely to be deemed a computer in the eyes of the law.
A computer crime may result in a misdemeanor or possibly a felony conviction, depending on the value of property or services lost. It could also subject the perpetrator to jail time in excess of a year.
Connecticut’s larger, more sophisticated police departments may have their own computer crime units, whereas smaller departments may rely on the Connecticut State Police, which has developed expertise and resources to investigate such matters.
You should advise your former employee that your intent is to recover your cell phone and its data without undue conflict or harm to either party, and his conduct will affect the path that takes.
Explain that if he persists in such damaging illegal behavior, you may seek law enforcement assistance and leave it to the police to determine the next steps.
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