Software cops flak in workplace dispute

Controversy about using content filtering software and other technologies in workplace surveillance is still at the centre of industrial disputes with no end to the long-standing problem in sight.

To ensure employees are aware of workplace monitoring most organizations have implemented e-mail and Internet usage policies so that staff are aware of their communications being monitored.

But the ACTU believes employers are using these technologies to excess giving rise to more controversial and bizarre cases going before the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC).

The solution to the ACTU's call for clear and consistent guidelines may be covered in new legislation drafted by the NSW government, the Workplace Surveillance Bill 2004.

The bill prohibits camera, computer and tracking devices as well as Internet blocking without first notifying the employee; basically all covert surveillance is banned.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission is also preparing recommendations to introduce reforms dealing with workers' privacy and surveillance, moves that have been condemned by employers.

NSW Labour Council deputy assistant secretary Michael Gadiel believes that proper consultation with employees is necessary to make sure technology is used correctly.

“Surveillance should not replace effective management. When surveillance occurs, employees can feel intruded upon, and it can lead to a breakdown in trust between employee and employer,” Gadiel said.

As the cost of technology falls, Gadiel said employers are using it to gain more control over how a workplace functions.

Australian Privacy Foundation spokesman Tim Dixon said lower storage costs has made it easier to store and retrieve electronic communications. "If an employer wishes to investigate an employee, the infrastructure is already there in most organizations now,” Dixon said.

“What has changed is there are now more sophisticated software programs to aid surveillance. This is much more intrusive, and employees view it as quite sinister.”

According to a research report undertaken by the NSW Chamber of Commerce entitled, Getting a Grip on IT, 40 percent of businesses said they relied on managers to monitor misuse of technology, 13 percent used bill monitoring to curb excessive use and 16 percent used blocking or other forms of technology.

CEO of the Chamber, Mary Osmond, said these results suggest employers and staff have already addressed the e-mail monitoring issue and there is no need for legislation.

“The government’s proposed laws, which protects the employee with little regard for the fact they are carrying out personal activities when they should be working, will now force many businesses to review their existing policies," she said.

“It is outrageous that businesses will now have to obtain a court order if they suspect their employees are using e-mail inappropriately at work.”

Meta Group vice president for technology research services John Brand has seen some innovative alternatives at a number of organizations to educate users.

“Some organizations are using an approach where if an e-mail goes out containing content that may be inappropriate, then the e-mail is returned to the sender with a note advising them why this e-mail was not allowed to be sent,” Brand said.

“The sender then has the option to change the content so that it will be sent. This strategy makes monitoring more of an educational process and is therefore better received by employees.”

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More about ACTUIndustrial Relations CommissionMeta GroupNSW Chamber of CommerceNSW GovernmentPrivacy FoundationTechnology Research

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