There are two things that I will never understand about Sunday newspapers. First, why is it that almost nothing of any consequence ever happens on a weekend to make the Sunday paper an interesting read? And second, how is it that the writers of Sunday papers can always manage to sensationalise the incredibly trivial and inane goings-on of a Saturday, so that the Sunday paper looks like an interesting read at first glance?
One Sunday recently, I was lunching at an eatery near my home (during the week I "have lunch", on Sunday I "lunch" - don't ask why). At this eatery (which was not, for the record, a McDonald's) they have newspapers out for the lunchers to read. I was there with a friend, who is not in the tech industry and actually has little interest in it.
One of the papers bore a huge headline reading "Bosses to Spy on Email". My friend spotted this and immediately launched into a tirade about civil liberties, the erosion of privacy, technology invading our homes, empowering the bosses, repressing the masses and so on. I can't quite recall if she made reference to the film Demon Seed, but she may have.
I imagine this was exactly the response that the writer of that headline would have been hoping for. It's the sort of reaction that makes you shell out the 90 cents or however much a Sunday paper costs (I generally read them for free over lunch - mainly for the comics, you understand).
This headline, of course, may as well have read "Sun to Rise in East". For as long as there have been bosses, they've wanted to know what their employees were up to. Call it paranoia, call it miserly, call it responsible management of human resources - these are all just different names of the same beast.
With the telephone, it isn't easy to know if employees are using company resources for personal use. Only when a two-hour phone call to someone's mum in Kazakhstan shows up on the bill can an alarm be raised. And even then, you can't prove that your employee's mum isn't an important corporate contact or the call wasn't business-related. It just seems likely.
E-mail changes all that. Even a
boss with an ideological zeal for employee privacy wants to keep an eye on the addresses that people are
communicating with. Anyone sends anything to firstname.lastname@example.org
and you know there's a problem.
Slightly more intrusive bosses might want to know if anyone's writing off to recruitment agencies and headhunters. This is important information for bosses to know, and the temptation to obtain it when it is so easy must be irresistible. It almost doesn't even count as spying.
I have to plead guilty here myself. I once had a fellow working for me who enjoyed reading newsgroups as he worked. Or, more accurately, instead of working. I tried the usual "managerial" approaches - talking to him, trying to get him not to read the newsgroups during business hours, threatening him with immediate dismissal and immolation, that kind of thing. Then in desperation, I approached the IS manager and asked him if it would be possible to restrict this particular employee's access to newsgroups to certain hours of the day.
His response frightened me. His eyes lit up, his grin broadened practically the whole way round his head and he began rubbing his palms together. Picture Catbert, but taller. "Of course it's possible", he beamed, in a voice that made me wonder what other nefarious schemes could be launched from the IS office.
I never followed through on it. I felt evil for asking. But, arguably, that was irresponsible management. Other managers, less frightened of the Dark Side than I, would do well to keep tabs on what their employees are getting up to using the company's bandwidth.
The new legislation simply clarifies under what circumstances an employer can actually open up and read an employee's e-mail - that's all. It doesn't give greater power for doing so at all - many bosses routinely do this kind of thing already, with no legislation at all saying whether or not it's allowed. Now, if an employer wants to read an employee's e-mail, they will have to give a good reason for doing so. If I read the story rightly, "for the hell of it" will not be considered a good reason.
Will this change anything? Probably not. There's no simple way for an employee to know whether their e-mail is being monitored, so the bosses will just be sure to keep it their secret. The law says they need a good reason, but the law also says people shouldn't commit murder. People still do that anyway.
But it made for a good headline.
Matthew JC. Powell has never submitted anything to voyeurweb.com. Honest. Interrogate him on email@example.com