The Age
E-mail privacy shock


Friday 25 February 2000

More than 75 per cent of Australian firms say they periodically monitor e-mail traffic through their offices - often without telling customers or staff, a national survey has revealed.

The practice has continued despite privacy codes adopted by many of the companies, and moves by some states and the Federal Government to increase privacy protection on the Internet.

The survey did not reveal the names of firms involved. However, several big companies contacted by The Age, including Telstra and ANZ Bank, confirmed that they monitor staff use of the Internet.

According to a report by the law firm, Freehill Hollingdale and Page, which conducted the survey, the practice of monitoring e-mails, combined with other privacy concerns, is retarding the development of e-commerce in Australia.

"There is an urgent need for companies .... to review their policies in this area," the report said. "Good privacy practice would require notification of any e-mail monitoring."

A prominent lawyer, Professor Ron McCallum of the University of Sydney, has also warned that the courts will soon declare some e-mails off-limits to employers.

The survey polled 400 organisations, including leading banks and companies involved in finance, information technology, telecommunications and retailing. The response rate was 17 per cent.

While 97 per cent of responding companies said they did not disclose information obtained through the Internet, only 18 per cent offered website visitors options to protect personal privacy.

Only 12 per cent had a privacy statement on their website, and 6 per cent used external auditors to monitor their compliance with privacy standards.

"They may be reluctant (to tell visitors about their privacy policy) in case they want to do more with the information in the future," said Ms Gayle Hill, special counsel at Freehill Hollingdale and Page, who directed the survey.

"They may not want to make promises that in the future they may not wish to keep. Or they just may not have thought it through."

While 80 per cent of respondents to the survey said they had adopted a privacy protection code, more than half of those companies conceded they monitored e-mail without informing staff or customers.

Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show more than 40 per cent Australian adults regularly use the Internet, but fewer than 5 per cent of them shop online. "We are fairly well behind the US," said Ms Hill.

The Federal Government is expected soon to introduce privacy legislation putting restrictions on the collection, use and disclosure of personal information.

Ms Hill said while Internet traders would be required to post privacy policies on their websites, the new law would not stop employers from monitoring staff e-mail. However, it might affect what they do with the material. "My reading is that there is a high degree of support for the Commonwealth to legislate," she said.

The Victorian Government said it would consider privacy protection for public sector employees in legislation to be introduced soon. But a spokeswoman for the State and Regional Development Minister, Mr John Brumby, said there was concern that the planned federal privacy legislation would not protect employee e-mail. "It is an issue we are looking at in preparing our legislation," she said.

Professor McCallum, a special counsel in industrial law at Blake Dawson Waldron, said legislators had to recognise that certain e-mail communications were "islands of privacy". He said using e-mails for private purposes was in some cases as legitimate as certain personal phone calls. "I believe there will be a day when someone is fired because of using the e-mail and the courts will say that is not a sackable offence but a reasonable use of technology," he said.

Original article