Is your boss really reading your e-mails?

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The Independent Online

If you are sitting in the office, bored, underpaid and overworked, and would like to entertain yourself with sending a few e-mails to your best mate or a CV to your potential new employer, then think again. Apparently the bosses think it is OK to snoop on your e-mail, store it and retrieve it at their leisure. Perhaps they are underworked and have nothing better to do in their spare time, but clearly reading the e-mails of their not-so-diligent flock is something of a favourite pastime among the upper echelons of corporate UK.

If you are sitting in the office, bored, underpaid and overworked, and would like to entertain yourself with sending a few e-mails to your best mate or a CV to your potential new employer, then think again. Apparently the bosses think it is OK to snoop on your e-mail, store it and retrieve it at their leisure. Perhaps they are underworked and have nothing better to do in their spare time, but clearly reading the e-mails of their not-so-diligent flock is something of a favourite pastime among the upper echelons of corporate UK.

A recent survey published by NOP has indicated that over 59 per cent of UK employees suspects that their boss monitors their e-mails. As a result of those fears, a huge majority (87 per cent) of workers avoids using e-mail from work for private communication.

Are we paranoid or is there a real threat to our privacy at work? The technology sadly works against us. E-mail is easy to record and monitor, as it only requires a little bit of memory on the system to archive and record all the messages and a not too sophisticated key word search to find out the juicy bits at a touch of a button.

Seeking an answer to the question of whether Big Brother is indeed watching us, I have found strong evidence that there are people in the UK who have been fired as a result of using e-mail for private purposes. Even more clearly, over 27 per cent of US companies freely admit that they store and retrieve employees' e-mails, considering that it is the legal right of a boss to have access to what people write or receive on their corporate e-mails. Infuriating as it may be, the companies claim that cyberspace with their signature on it (ie the company name on your e-mail address) fully entitles them to the ownership of the e-mail message and therefore the right to snoop if they wish to do so.

There are other implications when using an e-mail address that belongs to KPMG, Oracle or any other corporate body. For example, some retailers use the information from your corporate e-mail address to analyse data about your private shopping behaviour and publish it on their website. The most annoying case of that must be Amazon with their highly dubious practice of "purchase cycles". The analysis derived from the correlation of the e-mail addresses with the titles of purchased books allows them to publish on their website information on what employees of certain companies are reading. For example, you can find out what the people employed at Oracle read. I strongly suspect that the poor souls at Oracle haven't been asked if they agree to be the subject of a public survey, but hey, according to Amazon, if you use your work address to buy books, you have only yourself to blame.

To make matters worse, even the government is jumping in on the act of surveillance, and somewhat legitimising the behaviour of the employers by leading the way in cybersnooping. The new legislation unveiled last week indicates the new, widespread power of the government to tap, bug and monitor our e-mail communication. Although it is rolled out in the name of "national security" etc, the veil is pretty thin and the legislation seems to be wide open for abuse. It is unfortunate that despite the long campaign of civil rights activists, the government has chosen a rather aggressive monitoring strategy and went further than was necessary with the new proposals.

One of the most controversial aspects of the proposals is that the government appears to expect Internet Providers to pick up the tab for implementing the storage and monitoring devices that will be necessary for the surveillance operations. It seems bizarre, as the bill will run into millions if not more, and will undoubtedly be passed on to the users in some shape or form, resulting in higher usage charges or higher telephone charges. It also runs against the declarations from Gordon Brown, who last week indicated his intentions to make Internet access cheaper, not more expensive.

On the other hand, financing the new surveillance devices on the Internet Providers' systems shouldn't be covered by taxpayers money. The Internet is still a sport of the top 30 per cent elite of the country and as such, shouldn't be subsidised by the wider population, even on such an important issue like cybersnooping by the Government. It is bad enough that we already pick up the bill for various James Bond-like activities on traditional media, such as telephone-tapping, but it is not right to transfer that principle to new media without a more informed debate.

Cyberspace and its ownership is not something that should be modelled on the old concepts of property, and as civil rights activists pointed out last week, e-mail ownership must be properly debated and considered before any legislation is passed through the Commons. Similar debate is necessary on the rights of the companies to monitor and retrieve employees e-mails. The ownership of the server shouldn't automatically transfer the ownership of the contents of e-mail messages to the employer. The civil rights issues here must not be glossed over. Of course this is not an easy issue, as the daily usage of e-mail is clearly increasing and more of our daily activities like shopping will be done via the network. The most enlightened of corporations approach e-mail as a perk for their people, particularly welcome as our working hours are getting longer.

Therefore some element of private usage will have to be allowed without fear of invasion of privacy. However, for the time being, the safest bet for employees is to avoid the issue all together by subscribing to one of the Web-based e-mails like Yahoo, Hotmail or Zoom mail. That will allow you to use the Internet via the corporate network, but without the message being registered or stored on your company server.

In the long term, the civil rights people have a job on their hands to stop companies assuming the right to snoop, and to quash the Government's enthusiasm for cybersnooping without a mandate from us all.

Eva@never.com

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