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Wednesday, 4 October, 2000, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Snooping laws 'to face court challenge'
Eavesdropping graphic
New UK regulations allowing businesses to snoop on staff e-mails and phone calls could prompt one of the first challenges under the Human Rights Act, unions have warned.

From 24 October, companies can have "routine access" to tap phone calls or open e-mails sent by their employees, after a ruling from Patricia Hewitt, Minister for e-Commerce and Small Businesses.

The powers, which will not require employees' consent in many cases, will allow firms to cover better for staff absences, to monitor call centre operators, and secure the "effective operations of telecoms systems", the Department of Trade and Industry said.

But the Trades Union Congress has warned that the laws place too much power in the hands of bosses, who may be tempted to abuse private information discovered under the regulations.

E-mail trawl

"Employers will be able to trawl through e-mails and find out personal information about their employees," a TUC spokeswoman told BBC News Online on Wednesday.

Patricia Hewitt, Minister for e-Commerce and Small Businesses
Patricia Hewitt: rules won't lead to "significant changes"

"About things like trade union membership or sexuality.

"Employers could find out something they do not like, but which is totally unconnected to work, and then find an excuse to fire them.

"There are no laws protecting people because they are gay, for instance."

Right to privacy

The regulations may also fall foul of the Human Rights Act (HRA), which came into force on 2 October.

"The act guarantees the right to privacy," the TUC spokeswoman said.

An employee should be allowed to check on flight details during their lunch hour, but not to surf for private use for three or four hours

TUC spokeswoman

"We can foresee that when employees discover that their e-mails are being gone through, this may prompt an early challenge to the act."

The TUC is to press the government to introduce a code of conduct to ensure "sensible" use of the powers.

"An employee should be allowed to check on flight details during their lunch hour, but not to surf for private use for three or four hours."

Consent clauses axed

The DTI revealed on Tuesday that, following protests from businesses, it has watered down clauses demanding caller consent for e-mail and phone tapping except where criminal investigations, or activities such as downloading pornography, were concerned.

BT warned of the expense and difficulty of warning people ringing businesses that their calls were being monitored, while supermarket group Sainsbury warned it is "often difficult to determine in advance whether a communication is personal or related to the business".

"For that reason, companies need to be allowed to intercept all communications made over their networks," the retailer said, according to DTI files.

But Vodafone said consent should only be ignored "in exceptional circumstances, such as for the prevention or detection of crime".

'Right balance'

The DTI said broader powers were needed to help firms with virus protection, e-mail management, and covering for staff absence.

These regulations need to strike the right balance between protecting privacy and enabling business to benefit from new technology

Patricia Hewitt. e-Commerce Minister

"We understand that businesses need to have access to their own communications," the DTI said.

"We have expanded the regulations to authorise businesses to monitor communications without consent to determine whether they are relevant to the business."

Ms Hewitt said: "These regulations need to strike the right balance between protecting the privacy of individuals and enabling industry and business to get the maximum benefit from new communications technology.

"[They] will not lead to significant changes in normal business practice."

Controversial act

The regulations are being introduced under the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which legalised security service snooping on private e-mails.

The bulk of the act came into force ahead of the implementation of the Human Rights Act.

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