Surveillance: Is e-privacy a human right?

Human rights groups say government interception of email contravenes human rights law. Government argues that in some cases, it has the right to intrude.

Plans to intercept email and Internet calls contravene the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) according to a government report.

The report -- commissioned by the Office of the Data Protection Registrar to look at the misuse of personal data at work -- finds that employers spying on their employees could find themselves in breach of ECHR. The report goes on to suggest that interception as a whole will need to be rethought when the UK introduces the Human Rights Act next year, potentially opening up the government itself to legal action. (The Act is the UK's version of human rights rules adopted by Europe.)

Report author Robin Chater, director of the Personnel Policy Research Unit (PPRU), says that although the government's plans contravene the ECHR, the chances of it having to fight its case in court are limited because nobody knows they are being spied upon. "The government holds all the strings. We don't know what is going on specifically," he says.

Simon Davies, spokesman for human rights group Privacy International, says the government knows its proposal to intercept email is in breach of the ECHR. "Email is traffic of personal information, and the government's proposal contravenes the European rules on human rights." He accuses the government and police of deliberately pushing through the IOCA legislation before the Human Rights Act is incorporated into UK law. "If the edifice for interception is already in place, it will be harder to destroy it," he says.

The government denies any breach of European law and claims no case going to the European Convention has found IOCA wanting. But how can individuals challenge the government about intrusions of privacy when the government does nothing to inform individuals that they are being monitored? A spokeswoman for the Home Office gives a less than reassuring answer: "If we did tell people they were being intercepted they would be contacting the Tribunal every week," she says.

Accepting that government surveillance does interfere with privacy, she adds: "How can intrusive activity respect privacy? There are circumstances when the State can interfere with this right."

For employers routinely scanning employees' emails, the ECHR has major implications. While the PPRU report points out that it is currently legal for an employer to record its employees' calls, open mail and access email as long as the practise is incorporated into employment contracts, it warns that spying will not be legal for long. "This situation can be expected to change once the UK courts begin to interpret the standing of existing legislation in the context of the Human Rights Act," the report states.

See also: "Net surfing could get you sacked".

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