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Cautious welcome for e-snoop law

Worker at computer
Workers may find their surfing habits under scrutiny
New rules giving employers sweeping powers to monitor workers' e-mails and internet activity have received a cautious welcome in Scotland.

The Confederation of British Industry Scotland and the Scottish Trade Union Congress were responding to regulations which come into effect on Tuesday.

The laws have been the subject of a long-running battle between bosses and the unions over whether companies should have the right to inspect private communications.

Campaigners have claimed that the rules, under the new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, are an assault on personal privacy.

The existing legislation on the interception of communications dates back to 1985 - before e-mail became an everyday part of office life.

Until now it has been perfectly legal for employers to monitor any and all e-mails, but the new restrictions should limit their powers.

The regulations will allow employers to legally monitor staff phone calls, e-mails and internet activity without consent, for a wide range of reasons.

They can intercept communications to protect against computer viruses, to monitor how staff deal with customers, and to ensure workers are not using the internet to access offensive material.

CBI Scotland argues that companies need this right to combat the abuse of their systems and to catch rogue employees passing on potentially damaging information.

The STUC accepts that there are legitimate reasons to monitor e-mails.

But it is concerned that less scrupulous employers could harvest private information to use against their employees.

Right to privacy

The new law attempts to tread a fine line between the competing demands - but the unions are concerned that the regulations remain open to exploitation.

They are already gearing up to challenge the rules under the Human Rights Act on the basis that they contravene the right to privacy.

The government has said the new regulations are aimed at allowing businesses to get the most out of the new communications technology.

But many campaigners believe they directly contravene the Human Rights and Data Protection Acts, which state individuals have a right to privacy at work.

Draft guidelines issued by the Data Protection Commissioner also question whether blanket monitoring can be justified, and stress that employees have a right to work without constantly being monitored.

The government has said employers must strike a balance between privacy and surveillance.


E-mail Steve Margetts