Email snooping row kicks off again
November 28, 2000
The Data Protection Commissioner has come out the corner fighting in Round Two of the email snooping legal argument - caused by the introduction of the RIP Act.
Despite heavy criticism by the government and CBI, Elizabeth France is standing by her proposed code of practice for monitoring employee email and phone conversations, reports the FT.
The code contradicts the government's official line on email monitoring, stating that emails marked personal or private should be off-bounds to employers. She also says staff should be made aware when they are being watched. Any monitoring outside these two conditions should be carried out only in order to detect or prevent a crime. In contrast, the government says employers should have "routine access" to staff emails and phone conversations.
In the red corner stands Ms France, the trade unions and civil rights groups. They claim the new laws - introduced with the much-derided RIP Act - are an infringement of an individual's freedom and go against the recently introduced Human Rights Act. In the blue corner is the government and big business, which claim that it would be impractical and even damaging to business if it became illegal to open emails - what if someone is on holiday, or ill?
The situation is further confused by the failure of government departments to talk to each other, a number of different versions of the RIP Act itself (the House of Lords pushed for a large number of amendments before allowing the Bill through) and a still-to-be-seen government code of practice. In short, it's all once mighty cock-up.
In one sense, Liz is adding to the confusion (there's also the issue of whether email systems will have to be changed so deleted personal emails can't be retrieved). But she is also helping to balance out the argument and pull back some privacy rights from the RIP Act.
All this argy-bargy also goes to show what a poor piece of legislation the RIP Act really is. By using too broad a brush (some would say to hide true intentions), all sorts of other activities have become the subject of legal rethinks. Case law would surely have been a far better way of dealing with email and other such subjects.
Lizzy is trying to sell her code of practice as a second hurdle that employers need to jump before infringing on employees' privacy - the first one being the government's rules.
The DTI is having none of this - but then you'd be forgiven for thinking this is a bit rich when the DTI has still failed to produce a proper code of practice for RIP, even though it became law in July. The code is finally expected to appear in the middle of next year, but in the meantime, the law as it stands is wide open to abuse. ®
Kieren McCarthy, TheRegister.Co.Uk