Bosses’ rights to read staff email

Under new laws proposed by the Federal Government, employers could get new rights to access employee email.

New laws to allow companies to intercept the emails and internet communications of their employees without their consent are being considered by the Federal Government to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure from a cyber attack, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

The proposed powers, which the Government wants in place by the middle of next year, have been criticised by civil rights groups.

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard defended the laws this morning, saying they are needed to protect vital electronic infrastructure from terrorist attacks.

But many employers already have a right to monitor and read employee email.

New South Wales is the only state where employers’ rights are restricted. Employers there must have a policy and must inform existing and new employees about it. If there is an email to an employee blocked, the employee must be notified.

But other states do not have any specific regulations. Kate Jenkins, a partner at Freehills lawyers, says that best practice is to notify employees that you are monitoring email, and monitor it in a reasonable manner – otherwise you could be open to an action for unfair dismissal.

She says privacy laws do not yet affect employee records.

Peter Vitale, principal lawyer at CCI Victoria, says that he regularly advises employers to put a policy in place that makes it clear to employees that emails and internet use on employer-owned computers may be monitored and reviewed.

The Government’s security measure will include amending the Telecommunications (Interceptions) Act to allow companies and others operating critical infrastructure to monitor emails and other internet communications without their workers’ consent.

Currently that act allows only security agencies to monitor their employees’ communications without consent.

The security agents’ power expires at the end of June next year and Attorney General Robert McClelland told the Sydney Morning Herald he wanted the new legislation to include companies providing services critical to the economy.

“At least 90% of networks exist outside government, but there’s no powers for corporate network supervisors to intercept such communications unless they have specific authority from the employee,” he says. “It will need new legislation.”

McClelland says he would consult unions, privacy experts and civil libertarians before introducing the laws.

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