Watchdog Limits Electronic Surveillance at Work
Milmo, Cahal, The Independent (London, England)
GOVERNMENT PLANS to allow companies to snoop on staff e-mails and phone calls were thrown into chaos yesterday after its own privacy watchdog issued proposals to restrict hi-tech workplace surveillance.
The Data Protection Commissioner, Elizabeth France, has issued a code of conduct for employers laying down strict rules for the monitoring of employees at work using sophisticated electronic hardware.
Industry leaders warned the legally enforceable framework comes into direct conflict with powers granted by the Government this month that allow companies to watch staff to protect trade secrets.
Last week, the e-commerce minister, Patricia Hewitt, said firms will be allowed "routine access" to their staff's business e-mails and phone calls from 24 October to ensure their commercial interests are protected.
But the draft framework drawn up by Mrs France questions whether blanket routine monitoring can be justified and insists an employee has the right to decide how to work "without constantly being watched". And covert monitoring of staff behaviour, for example by concealed CCTV or tape-recorders, can be justified only in "very limited" circumstances, such as when a criminal offence is suspected.
Legal experts said the Data Commissioner's proposals would establish two opposing and often conflicting sets of principles which could make the Government's plans unenforceable.
James Davies, head of the Employment Lawyers' Association privacy and e-mail working group, said: "The existing legislative framework is extremely confusing for employees and employers alike."
Business leaders criticised the uncertainty generated by the conflict between the Data Commissioner's plans and the Government rules, in the new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
Jim Norton, e-commerce policy director for the Institute of Directors, said: "There is real confusion out there. Employers are very uncertain about what action they can take to track their staff's work."
The code, which also tries to reduce dramatically the circumstances in which staff can be tested for drugs, is one of the first attempts to rein back the Big Brother trend for bosses to snoop on their staff. …