From Tuesday, new regulations give employers the power to eavesdrop on the email communications of their staff, a legal shift that has been welcomed by businesses, but condemned as a breach of the right to privacy by civil liberty groups.
The new Lawful Business Practices Regulations -- part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act -- gives bosses the all clear to read the private communications of staff without the consent of correspondents.
Previously RIP required employers to gain consent before snooping on employees but firms complained it was unworkable.
Previous legislation, in force since 1985, allowed employers to intercept private communications freely but modernisation was needed with the advent of email, faxes and pagers.
Privacy groups were hopeful the new act would finally give some protection to employees. They argue that RIP has in fact given employers carte blanche to spy on employees. While the RIP Act came into force on 2 October, the section relating to email snooping at work was delayed. The government claimed it required more consultation but civil liberties experts believe it was revised in order to avoid clashes with the Human Rights Act which was also published at the beginning of the month.
The new regulations may still, however, face a legal challenge on these grounds. Legal experts believe that the regulations may contravene an individual's right to privacy as outlined by the Human Rights Act and could face a challenge in court.
The government's own Data Protection office has also expressed concerns about RIP, claiming that it may undermine employees right to privacy.
The government says that new regulations just allow businesses to work around controls over the interception of digital communications introduced by the RIP Act. It also says that the new regulations establish a framework under which businesses can protect themselves and their employees from potentially damaging or illegal content such as computer viruses or pornography.
"Monitoring communications is a normal, legitimate business practice and is already happening," says a DTI spokesman. "Most businesses have an automatic system to detect viruses and illegal content."
Privacy experts argue that the government has caved in to pressure from big business over the issue and failed to protect the rights of employees. "This area has been unregulated, so I welcome the regulation to an extent," says Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber Rights & Cyber Liberties. "But the government has a narrow interpretation and employees have very limited rights. It's all in favour of big business."
Some who represent the interests of employers are, however, concerned the new regulations may result in unnecessary friction. The Institute of Directors believes that employers should have the power to monitor emails, but says that in practice they may create a hostile working environment.
"The relationship of trust between employers and employees is in danger of being broken," says a spokesman. "We would like to see a code of practice being drawn up by each company."
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