IT managers question proposed e-mail laws

IT managers are unwilling to give blanket support to the introduction of legislation governing e-mail monitoring in the workplace until a number of compliance issues are fine-tuned.

The proposed e-mail laws which are part of a Law Reform Commission (LRC) report presented to NSW Attorney General Bob Debus will be reviewed by Cabinet next month to provide a legal framework for workplace monitoring.

Spokeswoman for the Attorney General, Kate Wood said the legislation will not be in place until the end of the year after lengthy consultation, but the legal focus is on "safeguarding employee privacy".

Under the proposals it will be illegal to undertake covert e-mail surveillance with consideration being given to mandatory written permission from employees to ensure all staff are aware of workplace monitoring.

The report said three quarters of companies now monitor e-mail and according to the Council of Equal Opportunity in Employment 15 per cent of workers are subject to covert surveillance.

While employers, unions and IT managers agreed legislation is necessary to fill the legal vacuum not covered under current federal privacy guidelines some aspects of the report came under question.

Covert surveillance will be illegal under the proposed laws unless authorisation is provided by the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC). Employers can only seek authorisation if they suspect an employee is engaging in illegal activity or serious misconduct, but Perpetual Trustees Australia Ltd national IT manager Clive Bailey questioned this process.

"We need to know how quickly the IRC can provide authorisation - whether it will take hours, months or days; if an organisation suspects an employee of fraudulent activity a company needs to act quickly -because if it takes weeks, what's the point?" Bailey said.

While the NSW government is yet to debate the introduction of written permission from employees to undertake monitoring, Bailey said this would be easy to apply in the workplace.

"We would do it electronically so when staff log-in to their computer they are presented with the e-mail policy asking them to agree or disagree; if they do not agree they can't use the system and then it would be a matter of talking to their unit manager to address any concerns," he said.

"Our present e-mail policy is accessible to all staff on the intranet but we could present this question every three to six months to remind staff of e-mail regulations."

Southern Cross University IT director Frank Archer said he will undertake a review of current e-mail policy to ensure it complies with the new legislation.

"There are some obvious challenges that need to be addressed before legislation is introduced particularly with the process of getting IRC authorisation," Archer said.

"I don't have a problem with obtaining written permission from staff because I think this is an opportunity to ensure employees are aware of conditions of e-mail use; it's a sensible and pragmatic approach."

The NSW Labor Council is examining the report prior to formal consultations with the state government to draft legislation.

Industrial officer Michael Gadiel said the council has been lobbying the government for 18 months to introduce legislation because it is only appropriate "employers justify spying on staff".

"Our understanding of the recommendations is that employers will have to issue an e-mail policy which employees sign stating they have read it; their signature only confirms they have read the policy it does not mean they agree with it," Gadiel said.

A spokeswoman for the LRC said the e-mail recommendations are part of a broader report on workplace surveillance and follows on from an issues paper prepared in 1997.

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More about Industrial Relations CommissionLabor CouncilNSW GovernmentNSW Labor CouncilPerpetual Trustees AustraliaSouthern Cross University

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