E-mail - private and personal?



Andrew Rigby

The vexed question of who owns or has a right to inspect e-mails can cause emotions to run high within organisations. For...



Andrew Rigby

The vexed question of who owns or has a right to inspect e-mails can cause emotions to run high within organisations. For employees, the issues are those of privacy and trust; for employers the issues are ones of potential liability and sometimes even abuse. For any organisation which provides e-mail facilities to staff, the issue of "ownership" or inspection continues to be a potential tinder-box waiting to ignite. So what should we consider?

The issue really is one of private or personal communications versus communications created in the normal course of carrying out one's duties as an employee. In general terms, and it is a delicate balance to strike, any modern business must accept that if e-mail is provided without any policies or guidelines being issued from on high, employees are going to use them for personal communications.

From the employee's point of view, personal communications are exactly that, personal and private. From the employer's perspective, the e-mail is being sent quite often with a business name and sometimes endorsed with business information.

For the employer, any e-mails sent from the business therefore potentially have the ability to incur liability for things such as defamation, misrepresentation, sometimes possibly even obscenity, so it is easy to see why businesses are concerned about the use to which e-mails are put by their employees.

However, in these modern times of longer working hours and a general acceptance of technology, to an employee it is only natural to use e-mails during office hours to break up the monotony, chat with friends, arrange social lives and undertake sometimes private communications and transactions with banks, building societies and the like.

So what are the legal implications and controls? Unfortunately, the issue isn't clear cut. Under the Post Office Acts, tampering with personal post is an offence.

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