Australia outlaws workplace snooping

May 05 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Bosses in Australia who snoop on their employees' emails could face criminal charges under new laws to be introduced in the state of New South Wales designed to protect privacy in the workplace.

The Workplace Surveillance Bill 2005 will make covert surveillance by employers a criminal offence unless they can prove they had reasonable suspicion of wrong doing by an employee.

Australia currently has national laws protecting individual privacy but these do not cover e-mail monitoring.

The new legislation, which is expected to become law next week, will also outlaw the bugging of private conversations or placing of video cameras in washrooms to monitor staff unless an employers has first obtained a court order and given employees notice that surveillance will be carried out.

"While some employers argue that this is necessary to protect their legitimate interests, employees expect that their private correspondence, like their private telephone calls or private conversations, should never be the subject of secret monitoring," said New South Wales' Attorney General, Bob Debus.

""We don't tolerate employers unlawfully placing cameras in change rooms and toilets. Likewise we should not tolerate unscrupulous employers snooping into the private e-mails of workers."

Research has suggested that almost a third of Australian firms employing more than 100 staff monitor the content of outgoing emails.

The legislation will impose fines of up to A$5,500 fine (£2,200) for individuals, or A$5,500 for each director of a company caught snooping on others.

Australia's trade unions welcomed the move. Bill Shorten, secretary of the Australian Workers Union, described it as a victory against "big brother" and said that employees have a right to privacy at work.

"The e-mail is the modern version of the telephone and I think that most employees would reasonably say that their phones shouldn't be tapped at work automatically, and I think that should apply to the Internet," he said.

"I think the NSW government is reasonably trying to strike a balance between the rights of the employee and the rights of the employer."

But The NSW Chamber of Commerce warned that the legislation would lead to some employers simply restricting access to the internet at work.

In Europe, covert monitoring falls foul of Article 8 of the European Human Rights Act enshrining respect for private and family life and personal correspondence.

Meanwhile, guidelines published by the UK's Information Commissioner in 2003 make it clear that such surveillance would only be justified to prevent malpractice or crime and would have to be approved by senior management. Such monitoring would then need to be "strictly targeted" and set to a "limited timeframe".

UK firms that breach the code could also see their directors being prosecuted under the terms of Data Protection Act.