The Greens and privacy advocates have hit back against proposed laws which could allow companies to snoop on their workers' e-mails, but Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said the laws are needed to protect vital electronic infrastructure from terrorist attacks.
The Federal government is developing new counter-terrorism measures which include changes to the Telecommunications Act that would allow companies providing services critical to the economy to read workers' e-mails.
The proposal has been slammed by Greens Senator Kerry Nettle and civil liberty groups, who say the new laws will be abused by employers.
"This is a major threat to the privacy of all Australian workers," Nettle told ZDNet.com.au today.
"I am appalled that a Labor government would advocate such an attack on the rights of workers."
Dale Clapperton, chairman of online privacy and civil liberties group Electronic Frontiers Australia, says the proposed laws could be abused by employers.
"Our concern is if [businesses are] given these powers, they are more likely to be used for eavesdropping and corporate witchhunts rather than protecting Australia from some kind of cyber attack," Clapperton told ABC Radio.
"If an employer had a particular employee that they wanted to get rid of, it would be a fairly trivial matter to use these powers to watch everything that they do on the computer until they have caught them sending a personal e-mail during work hours, or some pretext for getting rid of them."
However, the Deputy Prime Minister says the changes won't lead to an invasion of privacy.
"I promise we are not interested in the e-mail you send out about who did what at the Christmas party," Gillard told the Nine Network. "What this is about is looking at our critical infrastructure."
"If our banking system collapsed, if our electronic system collapsed, obviously that would have huge implications for society, so we want to make sure they are safe from terrorist attack," she said.
According to Gillard, that involves making sure the government has "the right powers" to ensure it knows "if there's something unusual going on in the system".
"At the moment this is only a proposal -- we've got to consult with privacy experts and industry before we go ahead with anything," said a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Department.
Today's reports come after the House of Representatives approved an amendment to the Telecommunications Interception Act last month to extend the limit of a sunset clause which allows authorities to monitor internal and government communications without a specific warrant, including those sent by the public to the government.
"One of our concerns is that the existing scope of this legislation is already quite wide, and in our view there needs to be more accountability, not less," said a spokesperson for Senator Kerry Nettle at the time.