Earlier this month (January 2016) the Telegraph newspaper instigated what may possibly be history’s shortest ever corporate surveillance programme. On the 10th of January news broke on Twitter that management at the newspaper group had installed under-desk motion sensors to track employee movement and to know when they're at their desk. This surveillance operation lasted less than one day, such to the intensity of negative feedback from reporters and staff working at the paper.

In an internal memo, management said: In the light of the feedback we have received from staff today, it has been decided to withdraw the under-desk sensors immediately. We will be looking at alternative ways to gather the environmental sustainability data we need and will keep staff in touch with any new proposals." But as invasive it may seem to install an under-desk motion sensor, it's totally legal. This raises the quite relevant question of where surveillance at work is legitimate and where it becomes invasive.

The European Court of Human Rights has already deemed it legal to spy on employees. In a landmark case, it ordered that a Romanian worker hand over their private Yahoo! Messenger chat logs after the employer had proven that the employee had used work equipment for private correspondence, during work time. Your employer can also read your private emails. Many people don’t realise this, instead of assuming that their emails are protected by the Data Protection Act. Wrong.

Your employer can read your emails if you’'ve been sending them during work time using your work computer or work mobile. The only stipulation is that your employer has to take reasonable steps to inform you of this. So check the small print in your contract. Our strongest recommendation for employees wishing to keep their private lives private is to stick strictly to your employer’s communications policy. Use your mobile for private emails and keep everything you do on a work machine strictly above board. It may be a bit of a faff checking your emails and Facebook on your phone (we all have to do it), but you'll sleep better at night knowing that not only is your employer not entitled to read your private correspondence, they physically can't.

Tips for employees concerned about surveillance

  1. Assume you are being watched. Then take precautions. Your employer doesn't’t need to remind you that you're watching you.
  2. Check your contract and employee handbook. Often, the details surrounding employee communications are buried away in the employee handbook that people never read.
  3. Log out of all private accounts and change the password. So you’'ve quickly checked a private email on work time. Your employer will be able to see that you’'ve logged into a non-work-related email account, but they won't necessarily be able to read the contents.
  4. Delete anything you wouldn't want people to read. If your employer really wants to know what you’'ve been saying in your private emails during work time, he or she can take the issue to court. They can’t demand access to your private email account but they can demand that you hand over copies or logs of any correspondence that you did during work time using their equipment. By deleting it, you won't avoid having to hand it over, but you'll certainly delay it.