Business Technology

Sunday 17 December 2017

Can the boss do that? A guide to privacy rights at work

A climate of unease has grown up around worker surveillance. Technology Editor Adrian Weckler lays out the law

CAN MY BOSS LISTEN TO MY PHONE CALLS? Ricky Gervais as David Brent in 'The Office' would have had an answer to that
CAN MY BOSS LISTEN TO MY PHONE CALLS? Ricky Gervais as David Brent in 'The Office' would have had an answer to that
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

ADD a recession to an office technology boom and what do you get? One outcome is a strong temptation for bosses to monitor much more of what employees are doing during their allotted work time.

But here in Ireland, how much are bosses allowed to do? Can they read our work-phone text messages? What about emails? And how close to our faces can CCTV cameras get?

"A big area here is data protection law," said Michael Kennedy, a partner in Byrne Wallace, one of the biggest law firms in the country.

"Many companies don't realise this. It has cropped up a lot in relation to CCTV and it is starting to occur more regularly in relation to other workplace issues."

In other cases, Irish law outsources these questions to industrial relations machinery. This will fall back on 'house agreements' or arrangements relating to 'custom and practice' at a particular business.

For example, if a contract refers to an employee manual that outlines monitoring rules in relation to phones and internet access, that may influence the applicable privacy standards.

But what happens in particular situations? Here are a few simple questions and answers.

Can my boss read

all of my emails?

No. "It's not actually permissible to have blanket monitoring or access-at-will by an employer to devices or their communications," says Paul Lambert, a solicitor specialising in IT and intellectual property law.

"Generally, an employer can't go and look at every email every minute of the day under data protection law. Employees are deemed to have zones and expectations of privacy. Any monitoring has to be proportionate."

When can my boss

read my email?

"Using filtering software alerts is one way of doing it within the rules," says Mr Lambert. "With particular types of files, the IT department might get an alert which they could then use to justify looking up an email.

"It could be something illegal or it could be that an organisation is concerned with copyright infringement for music or film or something else. So they may set appropriate alerts."

Can my boss listen to my phone calls or phone messages?

Yes, if it's a sensitive enterprise such as retail banking and no for general communications.

"Something that's such a blanket measure would not be permitted," says Mr Lambert. "However, these things may vary from organisation to organisation. For example, the concerns that may arise in a bank might be very different from those that emerge in a grocery store."

In other words, you can only listen in if it's to protect against an identified risk that is "proportionate" with a deviation from general data privacy.

What if there is no huge risk and an employer just wants to protect against slackers?

That's not enough of a reason to tap calls, emails or texts, says Lambert. "If productivity is a concern, you can limit access to services such as social media sites or other typical distractions."

Can my boss read my

phone's text messages?

In general, no. Your employer has to have an identifiable concern to read your texts, even if the company supplies and pays for your mobile phone or tablet.

Can I be disciplined for things I say on social media about my job, employer or colleagues?

Yes. There have been several Irish cases where employees' social media rants have contributed to a subsequent disciplinary process.

Can I be monitored by

a video camera at work?

Sometimes. But rarely all the time. It has to be for an unusually pressing reason such as security, health or safety concerns.

Furthermore, this pressing need must be proven by the employer as there is an assumption that they are an extraordinary measure not to be used lightly.

"Using a CCTV system to constantly monitor employees is highly intrusive and would need to be justified by reference to special circumstances," says the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner.


Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?

HERE are three other in which how bosses are keeping tighter tabs on staff, whether they like it or not.


One of the most common ways of keeping tabs on field sales employees is by tracking their vehicles. This is very easily done, with many products and services now available to Irish firms.

For example, a standard dongle that attaches to cars or vans and reports back on location, time spent and other out-of-office metrics costs €145 from More sophisticated systems feed back into software systems that can parse metrics to measure productivity.

Computer VPN logs

This is one of the metrics upon which the boss of the US web giant, Yahoo, decided to ditch the firm's toleration of home-working for staff.

Marissa Mayer looked at the firm's virtual private network (VPN) logs (the data which shows how often home workers are logging on to, and using company systems from home) and found that teleworkers weren't being productive enough.

So she dumped the company's home-working facility and brought everyone back into the office.

Web browsers

Ever wonder why your work PC is only allowed to run a fumbling, stuttering old version of Internet Explorer?

One reason is that a lot of the measurement tools used by Eighties-style Irish IT departments are designed to plug in to Internet Explorer and nothing else.

That means that system administrators can keep a closer eye on what you browse, what you download and sometimes even who you're in touch with over alternative communications channels, such as Gmail or social media.

- Adrian Weckler

Sunday Independent

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