Are You Being Watched?

Are You Being Watched?


Like the Channel 10 Reality Program "Big Brother" claims, "Big Brother is watching" and it seems in workplaces everywhere.

Recent findings indicated that employers are resorting to using the latest gizmos in a bid to secretly capture employees in action, monitoring everything from the number of emails sent out each day to eavesdropping on telephone conversations.

Weaknesses in Victorian laws in particular mean that many workers are not aware that they are being monitored and employers have no responsibility to tell them. The only restriction in the Victorian Act is that an employer is prohibited to film a "private activity" without the consent of each party to the activity.

A recent survey conducted by Pricewater-houseCoopers produced the following results:

  • Almost half of all Australian companies monitor their staff's email and Internet traffic.

  • More than a third of employers used visible cameras to film their staff and ten per cent used hidden surveillance cameras.

  • Fifteen per cent use sound-monitoring devices to listen to employee's conversations.

  • Of those employees that monitor their employees actions, twenty-two per cent do not tell their staff that surveillance takes place.

    Just some of the techniques and gizmos employers are utilising include:

  • Covert closed-circuit television cameras filming people.

  • Web cams - monitoring staff in different locations from desktop computers.

  • Global satellite tracking devices allowing employers to track their staff at all times irrespective of their location.

  • Hidden microphones recording employees' conversations.

  • Fingerprint and handprint scanning technology which is replacing time clocks.

  • Software programs that can record employee's keystrokes to monitor and measure performance.

But good news could be in instore for workers when a new cluster of laws come into effect from December 21st 2001, curbing companies' rights to snoop through employee's emails in particular.

The Amended Federal Privacy Act will extend privacy protection to the private sector for the first time restricting employers' rights to monitor the electronic activity of its workforce. Employers will be required to set up formal policies on email use and make these policies clear to staff.

In NSW, the State Government is also expected to clamp down on surveillance of worker's emails.

Presently, employers are entitled to scour through worker's emails at their liberty. There is no general constitutional or common law right to privacy in the private sector in Australia and few limitations on what employers can do with emails or video sent across their networks.

The proposed legislation will check these practices by requiring employers to prove that email surveillance is justifiable.

Justifiable grounds include excessive use of email, distributing offensive material, suspected criminal activities or passing on sensitive information.

So the next time you have the urge to forward on an email joke or have a lengthy conversation with friends during working hours, you may want to reconsider because it would seem that Big Brother is definitely watching and could be at a workplace near you!

- Annemarie Failla