Government okays snooping on staff

Criticism for new rules allowing employers to spy on their staff

New guidelines issued by the government Tuesday granting employers the freedom to intercept employees' emails and phone calls has been criticised by privacy experts for violating the right to privacy under the Human Rights Act (HRA).

Employers already have the power to monitor employees' private communications. With the HRA's passage into law, however, the British government had been expected to introduce rules requiring employees to agree to such monitoring.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has condemned the government's decision to allow the routine screening of emails and phone calls without the caller's consent. The body is recommending that the government draw up a code of practice to warn employees of their company's policy on e-surveillance.

The new rules have also outraged civil liberty groups. Yaman Akdeniz, director of online privacy watchdog, Cyber Rights & Cyber Liberties, says that the government has placed the concerns of businesses before the rights of individuals. "I don't think that privacy has ever been an issue for the DTI. They're trying to please businesses rather than protect privacy of employees."

Minister for e-commerce Patricia Hewitt has confirmed her acceptance of businesses and public authorities gaining "routine access" to employees' communications without the caller's consent. Under guidelines announced Tuesday, companies will be allowed to intercept emails and phone calls in order to combat unauthorised use, carry out quality control checks and detect criminal activity.

The controversy follows the implementation of the new Human Rights Act Monday, which stipulates that a person has right to privacy and to private correspondence. It is possible that individuals will challenge employers' rights to monitor communications using the Act in the British courts.

"We think it's almost certain that a union will challenge in court the government's endorsement of blanket surveillance under the Human Rights Act (HRA), as it's currently unclear whether the HRA or RIP Act would take precedence," said Sarah Veale, senior employment rights officer at the TUC. The TUC is concerned that unscrupulous employers could use the information that they glean through the routine monitoring of company email for unfair purposes.

"We will have to see what the courts say," says Akdeniz. "Although I think there would be a strong case if challenged."

Robin Bynoe, partner at City law firm Charles Russell, argued "the devil will be in the details -- I don't have any great confidence in the small print of regulations of this kind. There are a lot of weasel words in RIP, indicating that the issue of privacy was not a priority in the drafting of the act."

This is not the only privacy controversy in which the UK government is currently involved. The government recently introduced the RIP (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) Act, which gives law enforcers broad powers to monitor Internet communications.

The Human Rights Act, now in force in the UK, may make many firms rethink their policies on email monitoring. But the fair have nothing to fear, believes Lem Bingley. Go to AnchorDesk UK for news comment.

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