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California Bill Would Extend Privacy Protection To E-Mail

The proposed legislation would require employers to notify employees about E-mail monitoring, in or out of the office.

The privacy protection California workers enjoy on the telephone may soon be extended to E-mail. A bill requiring employers to notify employees about monitoring inside or outside the workplace passed the state Assembly's Appropriations Committee Wednesday by a 16-5 vote. Sponsored by state Sen. Debra Bowen, the proposed legislation will soon face a vote by the full Assembly, followed by a final Senate vote.

"Just because your boss owns the computers and pays for the Internet access doesn't mean he should have the right to spy on you without telling you, any more than owning the telephone and paying the phone bill should allow him to eavesdrop on your personal phone conversations without letting you know," Bowen said in a statement. She authored similar E-mail privacy bills in 1999, 2000, and 2001, all of which were vetoed.

The new bill requires employers to provide a onetime written notice disclosing plans to monitor employees electronically and detailing the information to be tracked, whether it's E-mail content or someone's physical location. According to Forrester Research, 43% of large companies employ staff to read E-mail sent by employees.

"This is a positive development for citizens who may not be aware that the employers are monitoring their activities," says Ray Everett-Church, chief privacy officer at ePrivacy Group, a privacy issues consulting firm. He notes that while it's important for companies to be able to make sure that workers are behaving appropriately, workplace monitoring should be disclosed.

Given the fate of Bowen's three previous attempts to extend privacy protection to the electronic realm, it's not clear that the new bill will fare any better. Nonetheless, Everett-Church believes that notification of monitoring isn't harmful to business interests. "Businesses have very little to fear from this legislation," he says. "If they convince the state Legislature to reject this bill, it sends a bad message to citizens. That message is you should fear your employer."

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