Workplace Web snooping on the rise

Although Canadian companies appear to be monitoring the e-mail and Internet use of their employees at an increasing rate, there is not yet any privacy legislation in place that requires employees to be notified, according to a senior official from Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commission (IPC).

Brian Beamish, the IPC’s director of policy and compliance in Toronto, indicated that in the current climate of potentially unfettered employee surveillance, it is critical for a company to fully inform its staff of any and all cyber-tracking.

“There may be good reasons for monitoring,” Beamish told IT World Canada, “but these reasons have to be defined and the monitoring has to fit those purposes.”

Beamish’s comments follow a recent report conducted by the Denver-based Privacy Foundation suggesting that one-third of the entire U.S. online workforce – an estimated 14 million workers – have their e-mail and cyber-explorations constantly monitored.

“If it’s happening in the States, I’m very sure it’s happening here,” said Boris Zvonkovic, the manager of information systems services for Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Although many Canadian companies seek permission to observe an employee’s electronic habits, since the worker’s acquiescence is often a condition of employment, it almost amounts to consent under duress, noted Zvonkovic.

In many respects, Zvonkovic said, “Privacy and security meet head-to-head in an area that is not all that clearly defined, very much a grey area.”

Both Zvonkovic and Beamish noted that public interest in issues of electronic privacy is noticeably on the rise. Until workplace e-privacy legislation is introduced both officials agreed that the key to avoiding an aura of suspicion and hostility in the workplace is encouraging employee participation in the development of an organization’s e-monitoring policy.

“We at the Privacy Commissioner’s office always advocate that monitoring should be an up-front thing,” Zvonkovic said, “employee should be involved in the process and not be ambushed.”

The office of Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commission can be reached at Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner is at