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Firms on lookout for e-mail abuse

April 16, 2001 

BEFORE you hit the send button on that next e-mail, consider this: Big Brother may be watching you.

Bosses are monitoring employees' e-mails amid concerns that important company secrets are being leaked, porn sites visited and time wasted surfing the Net.

Electronic mail has transformed the workplace, replacing snail mail, the fax and even the phone as preferred means of communication.

But with the benefits have also come major headaches for companies.

Most employers will not object to the Internet being used for some personal messages, just as the office phone is.

But time wasting on the Internet was estimated last year to cost Australian business $312 million a year.

Internet research company Red Sheriff found employees who did not have the Internet at home were wasting about 3.6 hours a week surfing the World Wide Web.

And inappropriate use of the Net has become such a problem that some employers have moved to block some forms of e-mail, such as JPEGs and MPEGs.

It has become common practice for companies to introduce a code of conduct for the Internet, while sophisticated software programs allow IT departments to keep a permanent record of all e-mails sent or received.

The list of organisations that have sacked or suspended workers for inappropriate use includes Centrelink, ANZ and Colonial Bank, Toyota, Telstra, and Victoria and New South Wales police.

Gary Rothville, a partner in the human capital practice of Andersen Legal, said in Victoria there were few restrictions on surveillance of employees by their employers.

There were many legitimate grounds for covertly monitoring e-mails without telling workers, Mr Rothville said.

They might suspect e-mails such as pornographic or offensive messages were being circulated.

They might fear company secrets were being leaked by e-mail, or an employee was engaging in an illegal activity, such as insider trading.

"If these things were proved to have occurred and you didn't investigate, you could have a liability through your inaction," Mr Rothville said.

But employers had to be careful they did not alienate staff by eavesdropping.

"It's not usually how you treat people because at some workplaces you would be inviting tension from employees or industrial trouble," Mr Rothville said.

The NSW Law Reform Commission has urged the Government to ban covert e-mail surveillance.

Liberty Victoria president Chris Maxwell, QC, said such surveillance was fraught with problems.

"Experience suggests that monitoring of phone calls and e-mail will inevitably be heavy-handed and non-selective," Mr Maxwell said.

"The case for the de gree of monitoring which is sought by employers is just not made out."

By MARK PHILLIPS, industrial reporter, © 2001 Herald and Weekly Times

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