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British employers will have to tell staff when and where they spy on them, under new guidelines devised by the data protection commissioner.

By now, most large companies should have in place snooping policies to ensure that staff are not accessing or distributing racist, pornographic or other illegal or unsavoury content by their computers. And by now most companies should have told their staff that they have such monitoring in place.

But what about monitoring employee browsers and email clients for, say, recruitment agencies, or football sites, or the BBC?

And what is the company privacy policy re staff mobile phones? Can staff expect their bosses to refrain from tracing their whereabouts outside office hours using company-issued mobile phones? Actually they can, according to the new employer-snooping code of practice devised by commissioner Elizabeth France.

Her aim is to safeguard employee privacy rights in the face of growing employer snooping capabilities.

"There is a whole area of rights here that have to be balanced against freedom of expression and the proper interests of business," she told the FT.

The new "rules" are a framework, as opposed to a law, so companies will not have to implement the code when it is introduced in September. This should make little difference; although Britain has one of the world's toughest data protection laws, it has shown a marked reluctance to enforce its provisions.

We can't think of a single high-profile corporate prosecution under the Data Protection Act. Can anyone else? ®

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