Government okays snooping on staff

From Heather <>
Date Thu, 5 Oct 2000 18:14:44 +0100

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Government okays snooping on staff
Wed, 04 Oct 2000 16:55:05 GMT
Wendy McAuliffe and Will Knight

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.

Mr. Yaman Akdeniz,
Director, Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK)
Tel: +44 (0)7798 865116

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