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Friday, 22 December, 2000, 11:17 GMT
Should your e-mails stay private?
Five workers at a top London law firm face possible disciplinary action on Monday after circulating an obscene e-mail that made its way around the globe.

New regulations that came into power in October gave employers sweeping powers to monitor their worker's e-mails and internet activity.

But many campaigners believe the rules, under the new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, are an assault on personal privacy.

Should e-mails at work be screened? Or should they remain the private property of the individual?

This Talking Point is now closed. A selection of your e-mails are published below.

Companies should take a pragmatic view

John, UK
If we start with the premise that e-mails sent and received via the company account have the potential to be read by the company and act accordingly, then there is no problem. After all the e-mail is sent out in the company name. Companies should take a pragmatic view. E-mails are cheaper than actual phone calls - and you will never eliminate employees using e-mails/ phones for personal use.
John, UK

I use the lavatories at work. They are owned by the company. Does this give them the right to put cameras in there and spy on people? Some companies are now going as far to stop their employees from talking to one another because they think it wastes time. I'm of the opinion it builds better working relationships where things can be achieved better and quicker. We are not robots.
Matt, UK

Since the company I work for doesn't allow me very flexible working hours I sometimes need to make phone calls or send e-mails from work. But as long as I get my job done and people don't write to my employers and complain about the emails that I send I would hope that they trust me not to abuse the system.
Christine, UK

All mail should be confidential no matter what the medium be

Kimberly, USA
Why is it that people who would never dream of opening up someone else's mail think it is okay to screen e-mail? All mail should be confidential no matter what the medium be.
Kimberly, USA

Send anything you like from your own machine and your domain name - not from your company's. And do the personal stuff in your own time. However the State should not be able to access your e-mail without showing due cause and obtaining a court order. The UK's draconian new act reminds me of Russia under Stalin. Perhaps the country needs a Bill of Rights and a written constitution to rein in Blair and Straw.
Greg Dunsford-White, South Africa

I'm intrigued by the number of people who think they should be "free" to send private e-mails on their employer's computers, using their employer's networks, and their employer's domain names. If you want your e-mail to be personal then great, get a personal computer a personal Internet connection. You work long hours? Then deal with that problem, don't rationalise it as an excuse to steal from your employer. It's their e-mail, not yours.
Andrew Smith, US/ ex UK

This breaks the bond of trust between employee and employer

David Harrington, UK
Would anyone be happy if their company opened their private mail? Or if they listened in on their telephone calls? Or monitored their every move via CCTV? The means of delivery might be different, but in principle it is no different with e-mail. On the face of it, employers need to be able to protect themselves against lost productivity via misuse of e-mail, but this breaks the bond of trust between employee and employer - and any abuse of the unspoken rule that sensible personal use is permitted can be solved in less heavy-handed ways. The RIP bill also forces ISPs to install "black boxes" to monitor your Internet usage - without your knowledge, even after any potential criminal charges. So 1984 is well and truly here, albeit a few years late.
David Harrington, UK

Corporate strategies seem to be aimed at sucking any stress relieving activities from employees to push us into early graves so that the company pension fund does not have to pay out. If there is a particular problem with your company why not open a hot mail or similar account for personal mail which will remove the legal responsibility from your employer.
Alan Manson, Scotland

Life goes on outside the office walls

Emma, UK
Life goes on outside the office walls. If you work in an open plan office and it is difficult to use the phone, then why not e-mail? As long as your work performance doesn't deteriorate, what is the problem?
Emma, UK

As a mail administrator I cannot believe some of these comments. E-mail is not a "perk" it is a business function which the business pays for. People view stealing (yes stealing) business resources such as e-mail in the same way they view stealing a few paperclips. Let's not forget e-mail viruses such as Melissa etc, that could cripple a company and force them out of business.
Paul Williams, London

What no one seems to have mentioned is that the man in question forwarded the message deliberately. It's no different than if he'd faxed a copy of a hand-written letter, or photocopied it and pinned it to the noticeboard in the kitchen. It's nothing to do with privacy at work or employers monitoring email.
Guy Hammond, UK

Since we had a crackdown on personal e-mail, the volume has dropped by 30%

Paul Robinson, UK
It is my job to screen the company's e-mail and monitor web usage. Since we had a crackdown on personal e-mail, the volume has dropped by 30%. We are not allowed to steal stamps from the company or travel free on trains or buses, so why should e-mail be stolen from work? As for the privacy aspect - our written mail is opened before it is put on our desks. Personally I think that video surveillance "for our protection" is more of an invasion of privacy than any e-mail scanning in the work place!
Paul Robinson, UK

I happen to work for a large company that comes down heavily on anyone who abuses any services provided to enable them to carry out their work. In the case of the recent newspaper story, what started as a piece of saucy banter between two consenting adults exploded to uncontrollable size because the recipient chose to share the joke with a few of his mates who could not resist the urge to let everyone know. Anyone who starts circulating material that could cause a server to overload is liable to be investigated. As for the sender, I hope she has learnt her lesson.
Hazel, UK

Screening e-mail messages is the equivalent of bugging telephones. It should only be done with a warrant from the court.
Jeff, USA

Dear me, what a lot of fuss about nothing. Think of e-mail as being like a fax - you send it to one particular recipient, but there's a chance it might arrive on someone else's desk (through action of the mail admins, mail delegation, PC left on or whatever). So, if it's private, either encrypt it or send it some other way. That applies to everything. How often do we hear about e-mails with salary details going to the wrong people?
Guy Chapman, UK

At my previous job I worked in the IT department where one person was charged with monitoring access to the internet. I have never seen somebody take such delight in telling other people, 'Oh, Mr X in Accounts is looking at porn again'. Disgression was not his strong point.
Dan, UK

Before people condemn companies for reading their mail let them consider this. Any action undertaken by an employee in the normal course of their duties can result (if deemed illegal) in penalties being imposed on their employer. This means that if someone assaults another employee at the Xmas party, the employer can be sued by the injured party. So according to those who believe that the employer has no right to read private e-mails, a company does not have the right to stop one person assaulting another either physically or sexually. Is this another example of the walk on by culture?
Jim, UK

By mistake I was put on the circulation of some very crude e-mails sent by a group of men from other companies discussing what they wanted to do to various women in their offices. Although I send the occasional private e-mail I was amazed that people would go into print with such comments and take the risk of them being read by someone else - as these notes obviously were.
Gill, UK

Think of e-mail as being like a fax

Guy Chapman, UK
Having endless gossip via either phone or e-mail is obviously not in the interest of your employer. However, I'm sure there are many people who, like me, can find themselves working unexpectedly long or anti-social hours - for the benefit of their employer. This is fine with me but I certainly wouldn't be so happy about it if my employer didn't allow me the odd phone call to revise my non-work arrangements. Why can't e-mail be used like this? For me, e-mail is often actually quicker (I'm a good typist!), and it's also less invasive for the recipient since they can digest your message in their own time. It's hardly the crime of the century to agree the pub you're going to meet your friend in later, is it?!
Stuart, UK

In principle I believe e-mail and other forms of communication such as telephones, should not be monitored by one's employer. But that piece of freedom comes at a price: responsibility.
Ben, Netherlands

E-mail is often favoured over writing a letter in some companies. Every e-mail sent has your company name in the address. Next time you write to your friends or forward that smutty joke, would you consider printing it on company headed paper and then sending it? Probably not.
Matthew, UK

I agree that business e-mail is not to be used for personal use. However, I have a fear that should I wish to send a confidential e-mail, perhaps concerning another manager (even my superior), then this could become intercepted and the contents of that e-mail become known. Whilst these rules are normally brought in for good reasons, it isn't long before they are being abused by people in power.
Adrian, UK

It's hardly the crime of the century to agree the pub you're going to meet your friend in later, is it?!

Stuart, UK
I think monitoring e-mails is an infringement of your basic rights to privacy. Just because you are at work, it does not make all you thoughts/ ideas "public". I think the ability to express yourself (no matter who it pleases or upsets) should be without risk to yourself or your position. Everyone should be entitled to their own opinions.
Pauline, Scotland

At a previous company, my job was to handle the engineering and support of the whole e-mail system for the European region. The email system was implemented and owned by the company. The end-user did not pay for their individual email account so it was not their email system to 'use and abuse'. All talk about invasion of privacy is redundant in my opinion. A work email account should be for work only and if somebody wants to send personal emails then they should do it from their home account.
Andy, Brit in USA

Read my email.
Open my mail.
Screen my calls.
Film my movements.
Bug my office.
I am not a number - I am a free man... Sorry, is this the UK or the USSR?
Aubrey Parsons, UK

This is nothing new; employers have been scanning your mail and net usage for years. It can only be a good thing as it prevents abuse of a business tool, keeps network speeds up and makes life for us IT professionals a bit easier. If a stranger you paid came into your house and used your phone - wouldn't you be interested in how and why?
James Canfer, UK

Let's face it, if this was enforced within the workplace bang goes 99% of people's social life. Oh and where am I sending this from? Mmm you guessed it - work.
Paul, UK

I think monitoring e-mails is an infringement of your basic rights to privacy

Pauline, Scotland

People would be outraged if their ordinary mail could be opened

Khan, UK
Of course e-mails should not be screened. People would be outraged if their ordinary mail could be opened and read by their employers; e-mail uses a different medium but has exactly the same status as private correspondence. If someone is time-wasting by over-indulging their e-mail habit, then employers will surely notice that that person is behind with their work and can take appropriate action on this basis; no need to read people's e-mails to do that.
Khan, UK

If people want to send private e-mails that may contain items their employer will find unacceptable then they should do it either from home or an Internet cafe. You do not own the computer, network, or e-mail address on your desk at work therefore the employer has every right to know what their equipment is being used for. I can especially sympathise with those employers who deal with sensitive/confidential material.
Graeme, England

The basic problem is that some employees are lazy and abuse the system provided by their employer, while on the other hand some employers are unreasonable in the way they treat their workers. A balance needs to be struck that protects both parties: I just hope the law has got it right.
Graham Smye, Italy

At my last place of employment, working in IT support, it was my job to monitor e-mails and Internet access. I personally believe that private e-mails are private, and so I would never read anybody else's mails under any circumstances. The best method to monitor without infringing privacy was to monitor the number and size of e-mails sent every day, and if this exceeded a certain level, then the employee would receive a warning e-mail, and then lose their e-mail rights for a week if this warning was ignored. I don't see how reading the e-mails could result in a better system of monitoring than the one I used, as my method focuses on most employers main concern, which is the cost of personal e-mail and internet use.
Phil, UK

I don't think you'll be able to do anything anymore without someone watching your every move. Slowly and surely our freedom is being clamped down on and no one seems to notice this. It is happening every day in small steps as if to achieve a bigger goal. To think all those people died in the wars of the world just so we can be free.
Alex Judd, UK

Employers should definitely be allowed to monitor e-mails and Internet usage of their employees, having informed them first that this is a possibility. That way, everyone knows the rules. If employees are worried about their employer reading the content of their e-mail, then they probably shouldn't be sending it. Anyone can install internet/email at home and then send whatever they like from there.
Yvonne, UAE

They should respect the integrity of their employees

Mary Cooper, England
Of course e-mails should be confidential and should remain unscreened, as should any form of private mail sent between parties. If firms provide an external e-mail facility, they should respect the integrity of their employees.
Mary Cooper, England

If I receive a private letter addressed to me at work, have the company got the right to open it and read the contents? The answer is no, by law! So why should they have the right to indiscriminate snooping of e-mail? Most companies have a filter system set-up to scan e-mails for certain words. This is fine as it helps cut down on porn and certain items of industrial espionage but the blatant reading of e-mails is a violation of personal privacy. I feel sure that those who read these would not have their e-mails read! That would be invading their privacy.
John C, Warwick, England

If a mail is sent using the company's e-mail address then it is the property of that company. If an obscenity is sent from that mail account, then that company has every right to deal with the issue in the way that it sees fit. At the end of the day, it is the company's reputation is at risk. I doubt if any decent sized organisation has the capability (or will) to monitor each e-mail, and as long as the system isn't abused then there shouldn't be a problem. If I have something private to say, I normally use the phone (remember them?) - it's more effective anyway!
Christopher Laird, Japan

Working in the IT business, I always tell people that "unencrypted email is as secure as sending a postcard". And would you use the company's internal mail to send out suggestive postcards?
Roland Moran, Australia/Scotland

It's a job, not a prison sentence

Krow, USA
E-mail has replaced the phone call or casual conversation for many small exchanges. I seriously doubt that anyone would want to monitor office banter. Then why should e-mail be any different? It's a job, not a prison sentence. Though many firms would have it the other way round.
Krow, USA

I don't understand the concept of "private" communication when you are using an employer's e-mail, telephone or snail mail. If you don't pay for it don't send it!
Huw, Wales

Use of someone else's facilities is always subject to the rules regarding the use of those facilities, whether it be e-mail, video, telephone or fax machines. All companies MUST monitor e-mail because THEY are liable for misuse by their employees. A libel dispatched via e-mail can be attributed to the company from which it originated exposing them to severe damages in court. I am a great believer in personal freedoms but I recognise that employers also have the right to protect themselves from potential damage.
Steve Browne, USA

A small amount of private e-mail, like the occasional private phone call is accepted by a lot of employers, however browsing the web for porn is not. The simple rule to avoid trouble is not to send anything on an e-mail that you would be embarrassed by your employer overhearing if it was a telephone call. And to delete messages to be on the safe side!
Brian, U K

When drowned in the busy schedule of work, to receive or send a line or few to a friend, I guess, wouldn't cause a major crisis to the organisation

Shahir, India
When drowned in the busy schedule of work, to receive or send a line or few to a friend, I guess, wouldn't cause a major crisis to the organisation - but rather improve the productivity of that staff by having a better frame of mind to work in the coming hours of that day! If one really is geared to pin down this, well then, cut open the mails, throw the ashtrays in the offices, limit and track 'every' phone calls (even within the company, to see if it is business or not)... and spend your resources and valuable hours in finding who is saying 'hi' and who is adding a penny to the balance sheet! Let us sometimes talk sense!
Shahir, India

We should at least inform all our correspondents that their incoming mail is being read by a stranger.
Bernard Rowson, UK

From a companies point of view it is not more then normal to monitor e-mail. On average every employee spends about 15 minutes per day on private e-mails. That's one working hour per week. For a company with a 1000 employees that can turn into an expensive issue. For the user: use the tools available. You don't write what you want to say on the envelope either, do you? By the way Anne: The internet is monitored. Just type echelon into your favourite search engine and be afraid. Big brother is watching all of us, but who's watching big brother?
Mars, UK

Employers may have the right to monitor email, but I don't think its wise to do so. You may well catch the odd dosser but you create an atmosphere of distrust. Besides, just imagine what an office full of bores like Asif would be like!
Oscar, UK

Its quite interesting to see arguments how emails should be monitored as businesses lose money with time wasters. Especially as these views were published during working hours. Shouldn't they be working instead of reading Talking Point!

My employer has the right to screen all email and internet activity undertaken using the system that it pays for. I know this - it was part of the conditions of usage. The company also explicitly permits reasonable personal use of its systems. I know that all my correspondence (including this) may be stored and read. I don't have a problem with that - anything personal that I don't want my employer to read I send/read from home.
John B, UK

I think that as long as employers give prior notice that emails will be subject to screening, and give firm details of the scope of the screening procedures, then it is not an invasion of privacy. However, employers must realise that a small amount of personal use is acceptable (as most already do recognise this for personal telephone calls).
A. Wells, UK

I would not object to business related e-mails being monitored, as these may affect the business or organisation that person/s work for

G. Bewsher, UK
I don't believe that employers have the right to spy on e-mails of a personal nature. The observer may gain detailed, intimate knowledge of you or your friends and family, and armed with this intimate knowledge the observer could start spreading this to other people or work colleagues very easily, or use this new found knowledge to harm your career. This could have a detrimental effect on your work and interaction with other staff members. Although I would not object to business related e-mails being monitored, as these may affect the business or organisation that person/s work for.
G. Bewsher, UK

Does the fact I can type at 98 words a minute mean that at least if I do use my office Internet connection for personal e-mails, I get them over with really quickly? Teach people how to type and any accusations of time-wasting or abuse of company equipment seems silly, especially when the average person at my office works erratically long hours and does not often use the phone, but their own mobiles for personal calls.
Christine Kent, UK

Most employers realise that their employees work to get the job done

Phil W, UK - currently in the USA
At my company, obscene Web address URL's are monitored, and warnings given to offenders. If they continue, they are fired. The same applies to poor taste and obscene messages. Those who continue to offend rules of decency, rightly get punished. Anything of a personal nature which is not offensive is allowed, since most employers realise that their employees work to get the job done, and "sensible" levels and content of private email contact is a perk.
Phil W, UK - currently in the USA

Why is it that people are aggrieved that personal e-mails sent to the office are scanned and monitored? Would you have your personal post addressed to your offices, bills, personal correspondence etc? Perhaps a bad precedence was set when companies became lax over the use of the telephone for personal calls? Or perhaps it is the ease of abuse and the danger of virus contamination? In my personal experience it is those who abuse the system the most that complain the loudest when such "perks" are denied them.
Paul Griffin, UK

I write this opinion from my computer at work. However, I am writing during lunch hour. I think that companies do have the right to monitor employee e-mails and Internet usage, provided that the company makes it very clear that net usage is being monitored. Although my employer doesn't make a big deal about employee net usage, I use the company e-mail only for company business. I may browse the web during lunch hour but that is it.
Hosam, Boston, USA

I have seen the email in question and there is nothing particularly obscene about it

I have seen the email in question and there is nothing particularly obscene about it. Certainly the language would not have to be tempered to appear in any TV production after the 9pm watershed. Secondly, it is the absolute right of the person(s) paying the bill to ensure that their systems are not being used for any illegal practices. Whether that be against company regulations or the law of the land is unimportant.

Surely there are enough free e-mail servers out there so people wouldn't need to use their company e-mail. Unfortunately it's the outgoing mail from people who have no common sense, the ones who will quite happily send ridiculously dirty e-mails to addresses they know are company owned. There is nothing you can do about mindless morons like that. You wouldn't send some of that stuff through a fax machine so why send it by e-mail?
Robin, Dubai

My last boss used to write long emails to his friends outside the company complaining about his colleagues. The messages were extremely derogatory towards a lot of people. A few of us had access to his account and read all this bile and it put us in an awkward situation. Basically, if you are writing something you don't want your employer or colleagues to know about, you shouldn't be sending it via your business email. Get a Hotmail account.

Who is watching the watchers?

Peter Nixon, England
Who is watching the watchers? The law permits companies to snoop on employees' communications as companies see fit, monitoring e-mails and listening in to phone calls. I thought we had moved past the Dickensian management style - or is it returning? I have known managers who censured employees for talking to each other for than five minutes, who prohibited any drinks stronger than coffee and fruit juice during working hours and who then took three hours over their "business lunch", coming back smelling like a distillery. One law for the workers, one less for management.
Peter Nixon, England

I'm sat in front of a monitor from 8am until 6pm. I have lunch in front of my terminal - I see internet access and email as a perk. I promise not to visit porn sites on (or off, for that matter) company time, but I wouldn't expect anyone to read my email.
Damian, UK

If my email was vetted, then you, dear Talking Point reader, would be denied my banal and half-witted contributions to this column, largely on subjects which I know absolutely nothing about. And that would be a loss.
Mark B, UK

If employers have a policy of recording employee telephone calls or opening employee mail delivered to the office, then it is consistent to monitor email content too

Alan L, UK
A straightforward solution would be to maintain consistency with the monitoring of other forms of media. If employers have a policy of recording employee telephone calls or opening employee mail delivered to the office, then it is consistent to monitor email content too. If not, then it is not. The only reason controversy arises, is because email is more widely used than the post and much easier to monitor than the telephone.
Alan L, UK

If companies make it clear first that they are going to be scanning email then that is fine, employees will know not to send sensitive information.
Marc Wickens, UK

Here in Bombay, we use e-mail to communicate with others in the world. I find it ironic that companies on the one hand encourage the use of technology and on the other hampers it's use. Very strange!
Terry, India

The use of company e-mail for private ends (like this posting for example), is an accepted perk of having to work long hours hunched over a keyboard

Paul, UK
The use of company e-mail for private ends (like this posting for example), is an accepted perk of having to work long hours hunched over a keyboard staring at a screen. As such I would not expect my company to read it any more than I would expect them to open letters or parcels addressed to me at work. Although I have no problem with them running a virus / decency filter over my e-mail such as a mail-sweeper type application.
Paul, UK

Using your employer's e-mail address (domain name) in personal correspondence is bad practise. Using their internet connection to access your personal e-mail is not.
Leo Vegoda, NL

It is more than reasonable that companies should scan and filter email where necessary, to guard themselves against liability claims (very common here in the US). Employees cannot expect their business email to remain unscanned and / or unfiltered. They are using a tool supplied by the business, for the business. Norton Rose discovered to their cost that a written email policy doesn't suffice when trying to protect the good name of an organisation.
Andy Martin, US / UK

Don't want your company looking at your personal e-mails? Then don't use the tools they provided, at their cost, on their time, whilst neglecting the job that they are paying you to do.
Spence, UK

Have two email addresses, one for work, one for personal use. Use strong encryption (PGP) on personal emails. Electronically sign all emails.
Duncan Drury, UK

Personally I think that employers have no need to scrutinise their employees' emails. The simple fact is that most personal email is about banal subject matters anyway, such as which pub/ bar we are going to after work or what do you want for Xmas? If they really want to crack down on email abuse employers should encourage the use of web-based email i.e. Yahoo or Hotmail. That way if anything dubious is being sent the company has no link to the sender or recipient and so gets no bad publicity. They should also realise that there is no way that people are going to stop communicating with each other, even in work hours.
R. Dasiel, UK

Running an e-mail system costs money

Richard, UK
It might not be obvious but providing and running an e-mail system costs money. Employers pay for this so that you can use it in the course of your business - just like a phone system. And just like a phone system, employers (generally) are happy to accept that a little personal use will occur and turn a blind eye. However, nobody has the "right" to use a service funded by someone else for their own purposes. As long as employers make the rules clear, they have every right to see your work e-mail. If you want "private" e-mail, get an account at home!
Richard, UK

I hope internet access isn't monitored - how else would I get to read Talking Points??
Anne, UK

Residential email should remain private, otherwise it is a breach of the basic human right of privacy. However, business email should be monitored as time wasting can cost businesses millions and gossip is irrelevant to your job.
Asif Suleman, UK

See also:

16 Dec 00 | UK
E-mail woman in hiding
25 May 00 | Science/Nature
Watching while you surf
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