Human rights warning over e-mail censorship

Companies which scan employees’ e-mails to check they do not carry
inappropriate or defamatory material could fall foul of the Human Rights Act,
legal experts believe.

The Act, due to come into force on 1 October this year, will introduce a
right to privacy which covers private correspondence. This will initially apply
to employees in public and semi-public bodies but is likely to spread to the
private sector.

The warning comes as employers are increasing surveillance of staff e-mails
in an attempt to protect themselves from being sued. Employers can be held
liable for defamation, harassment or breach of contract as a result of messages
sent by staff.

Trend Micro, an anti-virus software firm, said it recently launched a
product to search e-mails for key words and block any that carry a risk. It
developed the product at the request of customers.

Integralis, which has provided a similar product for the past three years,
said its business has been growing by 50 per cent a year. Marketing director
Steve Webb estimated that it has sold the technology to about a quarter of the
FTSE 100 companies.

But Simon Gilmour, associate solicitor at Eversheds, Birmingham, said
employers should tread carefully in anticipation of the Act.

"There is an argument that by employing such methods of surveillance
they will be contravening the right to privacy," he said.

David Engel, associate at Theodore Goddard agreed that employers will have
less freedom to survey their staff, but said the Act will carry an exemption
when it is in the public interest or necessary to the efficient running of an

This will mean scanning for legitimate business reasons will be acceptable
as long as employees are informed it is taking place, which means having
policies that are well publicised, he said.

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