Email interception proposals will finally become law next month following the conclusion on Friday of an extended consultation period to clarify exactly who has the power to snoop on whom.
Under the much-criticised Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, government and police authorities can obtain warrants to monitor email. The Act also allows employers to read staff email messages if they believe both sender and receiver have given consent.
However, businesses complained that the consent clause in the draft regulations meant they could not monitor messages in some situations, such as holidays.
Announcing a three-week extension to further discuss its proposed draft regulations, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said last month that it has always been its intention to allow employers to monitor staff email.
Now, the regulations may allow businesses to monitor employee emails without consent for a specific reason, for example, if they suspect their email systems are being used for unauthorised purposes. However, this has incensed civil liberties groups.
Security experts have said companies should obtain consent by including the right to intercept email in staff handbooks when an person joins a company.
The DTI said it plans to post a summary of responses to the draft regulations on its website late on Friday, and will then respond to the points made.
Meanwhile, the delay in resolving who has the power to snoop on whom and under what circumstances has created a three-week gap between the bulk of the Act and the section relating to email interception. While much of the Act becomes law on 2 October, the email rules will not come into force until 24 October.
Fears have been expressed that employers, particularly in the public sector, have been put at risk by the delay. Potentially, employees could file lawsuits against their employers, alleging that privacy rights under the Human Rights Act have been breached. The Human Rights Act also comes into force on 2 October.
Indeed, Home Office officials were forced to write to public authorities with instructions on best practice between 2 October and 24 October.
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