University in 'Net privacy row

by Chris Griffith
Published 3 March 1996 in The Sunday Mail


my face


A former Griffith University staff member has accused the university of grossly invaded her privacy by reading and assessing her personal electronic mail (e-mail) on the internet.

The staff member, who asked not to be named, said her work supervisor had been "extremely upset" by the contents of her private e-mail messages.

Her supervisor had printed and viewed her e-mail messages as part of an audit of internet activity.

"I regard this as a gross invasion of my privacy, extremely unethical, and a warning to other internet users that they cannot assume privacy on the internet."

But Queensland Council for Civil Liberties president Ian Deaden said the university's activity was totally legal because the state had no privacy legislation.

He said internet users should not transmit information they were not prepared to see plastered over a billboard in the main street.

Federal laws that protected the privacy of ordinary mail delivered by Australia Post did not apply to the internet, he said.

Mr Deaden said people's only other option was to "encrypt" their e-mail so that it could be read by only the sender and recipient. There were also facilities on the internet to send encrypted messages anonymously.

The Pro Vice Chancellor of Information Services at Griffith University, Mr Brian Cook, said he could not verify the former staff member's case because she had not lodged a complaint.

But he said all staff members using the internet signed a confidentiality agreement which said they must not attempt "to examine, disclose, copy, rename and modify" another person's files.

A failure to adhere to these guidelines would be a breach of university discipline, he said.

"If that staff member raises this internally, we'd be able to take action."

The incident comes as authorities begin to hone in what people thought were undetectable, private dealings on the information superhighway.

In an Australian case before a courts, a man was recently charged after allegedly downloading child pornography onto his personal computer.

What makes this case interesting is that the police found no evidence of the pornography on the man's home computer. They say they established he had downloaded the illegal material by examining files held by his internet service provider.