October 26, 2005

You’ve got mail, and your boss might read it (from October 26 issue of the Yukon News)

The Yukon government wants its employees to know that nothing — repeat nothing — on their work computer is private.

And, if they work from home, information on their personal computer may also become fair game for a government probe.

New computer regulations for employees that came into force on October 6 worry many, because their subtle threats of monitoring and discipline echo the “porn probe” scandal of 2003, which saw two civil servants fired and others suspended or reprimanded for “misusing” their computers.

Those using government computers “need to be aware that they do not have a right of privacy in their use of electronic networks and corporate computers,” according to the new rules.

More troubling, they also apply to employees patching their personal computer into a government network to do work from home.

Four principles must not be broken: the hindrance of job productivity from computer misuse, ethical damage to the public service, jeopardizing the “legal position” of the government and threatening the security of its computer network.

If any of these are even suspected of being broken, actions can be severe.

“Authorized personnel will investigate and monitor an individual’s activities,” read the rules.

That could result in disciplinary action against the employee, or firing.

Privacy has become an illusion for civil servants, said Yukon Employees’ Union president Laurie Butterworth.

“Nowadays within Yukon government, they can log right onto your computer and see what you’re doing,” said Butterworth on Tuesday.

“You might think you have an e-mail that’s fairly private, but it isn’t. It’s there on the network and anybody can retrieve it.

“There is no privacy there.”

The regulations may sound Orwellian, but they’re simply addressing new realities technologies create, said Liz McKee, the Public Service Commission’s communications manager.

“Most people, even I, as a fundamental techno-peasant, understand that I wouldn’t put anything in an e-mail or anything else that I wouldn’t stand on the corner of Second Ave and Main and holler,” said McKee on Tuesday.

“That’s kind of one of the basic principles of the technology.”

Computers are no longer just number crunchers — they are our main communication technology, both in our professional and private lives.

That means regulations placed on their use, including suggestions of monitoring, immediately raise privacy issues.

Clouding the issue, the government hasn’t banned its employees from using computers to check personal e-mails or browse the internet.

That paradox creates privacy questions for which there are no simple answers, said Yukon privacy czar Hank Moorlag.

“The office of the privacy commissioner is in place to review the very questions that are being posed,” he said.

Computers have created not only a communications revolution, but also a surveillance revolution, said Moorlag.

“The technology enables you to do the kind of monitoring that is being contemplated.”

Computer-use regulations that allow for monitoring are being created in organizations everywhere, “because you can,” he said.

Worker concern about what they can and can’t do with their computers led to the new regulations, said Marie-Louise Boylan, Highways and Public Works spokesperson.

“It’s about providing resources to employees on where they stand on using our technology resources,” she said on Tuesday.

“There’s no way we would cover each and every incident. So it works under the assumption that employees are professional and act professionally.

The rules provide guidance for workers “that are very standard in every organization.”

If workers step outside those boundaries, “it becomes a management issue,” said Boylan.

“If there’s an issue, the manager would handle it.”

Most employers lay out rules for the conduct of employees in the office, including their use of computers, added McKee.

But some government workers have more computer freedom than others.
Health professionals, for example, can look at what would be considered questionable material for others, as it may be relevant to their work, said Boylan.

There is no new technology with the new regulations, other than new spam blocker software, she added.

Asked how big of a problem online gaming or internet pornography is within the public service, Boylan responded, “it’s not a really big problem right now.”

“These guidelines are needed so staff can know what the principles are that they need to follow.”

The YEU is disturbed by implicit threats in the regulations that computers will be monitored and employees disciplined, said Butterworth.

But he dismisses the rules as illegitimate because of the process used to create them.

“First off, the rules say that there must be policy in place, and then guidelines are derived from policy,” said Butterworth.

“What’s happened here is they’ve written guidelines without consulting with us, because we’ve told them all along there has to be a policy.”

The regulations were revealed to Butterworth at the YEU’s convention over the weekend, and he was told they had already been approved, he said.

“Whatever these guidelines are — because there’s no policy yet — they shouldn’t even be here yet.”

The YEU will be working with lawyers and experts on a stance against the rules over the next few days, said Butterworth.

If they are left in place, he worries the rules open up avenues to monitoring that will be difficult to control.

The YEU has already cautioned workers not to use their home computers until the rules can be challenged.

“When they start linking home computers, there’s issues around that, there’s issues about wording,” he said.

Asked whether the regulations were more about the government trying to protect itself, rather than protecting the interests of its employees, Butterworth was blunt.

“I think so.”

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