The Globe & Mail
Saturday, December 14, 1996
page A12

Surveillance for Internet abuse runs into employee's privacy rights

by Brian Laghi

EDMONTON -- The arrest of a federal scientist accused of downloading more than 20,000 images of child pornography has reopened the debate as to whether employee's pathways through the Internet should be patrolled.

On one hand, unfettered and unmonitored access could leave companies open to lawsuits, protests, and the kind of public embarrassment that befell the Department of National Defence this week after a physicist was charged with possessing, making, and distributing child pornography. On the other hand, too much security could infringe on an individual's right to privacy, a commodity that many workers say is already in increasingly short supply.

"We are in an inherent dilemma", said Frank Work, chief counsel to Alberta's information and privacy commissioner, Bob Clark. "The potential for abuse is tremendous, but trying to cure that abuse can violate people's privacy."

Mr. Work said the news of the arrest in Ottawa sparked thoughts about whether the Alberta government is watching its won employees closely enough.

For now, the privacy office will not police its workers, all of whom have access to the Internet. "Until we get burned, we're going to trust them."

But he understands that private firms may find it necessary to keep an eye on their workers, to ensure the corporation is not held liable for illegal activities.

Mr. Work suggests that companies that do keep tabs on their workers' computer habits make it plain to employees that at any given time they might be under surveillance.

There may be good reasons for employers to be concerned, for the Net has opened up a number of potential areas where they could be vulnerable. Defamation, libel, and sexual harassment are all areas where companies could be called onto the carpet for their workers' use of the Internet, said. C. Ian Kyer, a Toronto lawyer.

For example, a company scientist who defamed a competitor's product while communicating within a chat group might put his firm on the hook, said Mr. Kyer, whose law firm of Fasken Campbell Godfrey produced a recent report on employer legal liabilities involving the Internet.

A company might also be taken to its government's human-rights commission for downloading objectionable images, such as the electronic equivalent of a pin-up calendar.

The day may be coming when workers insist that their employers impede access to anything they deem exploitative, or that constitutes sexual harassment, Mr. Kyer said.

Blocking employees from certain sites on the Internet may be one way of preventing incidents like the one reported in Ottawa, experts in the field say. But prohibiting the downloading of certain data might inadvertently block access to other research materials.

The example is often used of a program forbidding users to access material that included the word breast, Mr. Kyer said. This not only would block the downloading of objectionable sexual material, but would also prevent users from obtaining studies on breast cancer.

Copyright © 1996 by The Globe & Mail. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.