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Unauthorised snooping on workers by their employers is to be banned in Australia's New South Wales.

Regulations in the Exposure Bill, due out next month, will make it a criminal offence for an employer to carry out covert surveillance on its staff unless a company can show a "reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing by an employee", AAP reports.

The rules will prohibit the use of technologies including video cameras, email monitoring software and tracking devices in illicit spying. NSW employers will be obliged to be more up-front about monitoring, for example by writing rules into employment contracts.

"The law to date has not provided any guidance when legitimate employer concern crosses the line into unauthorised cyber snooping," Attorney-General Bob Debus told NSW's parliament.

"While some employers argue that this is necessary to protect their legitimate interests, employees expect that their private correspondence, like their private telephone calls or private conversations, should never be the subject of secret monitoring."

Trade unions, which have campaigned on the issue for four years, are delighted.

"This is truly a historic development and a recognition that workers using computers at work have privacy rights," NSW Labor Council secretary John Robertson told AAP. Robertson added the rules would help endure privacy when workers contact their trade union for advice or during disputes.

Employers are likely to be far from pleased. A recent study found that four in five Australian bosses use technology to monitor worker's emails, phone calls and Internet usage.

The UK Information Commissioner announced a code of practice on surveillance in the workplace last year. This requires companies to inform employees if they are monitoring phone calls, emails and Internet use. The Commissioner, Richard Thomas, said the guidelines tried to balance the needs of employers with the rights of employees.

But critics say the Employment Practices Data Protection Code, more than two years in development, is still too vague and does little to safeguard privacy in the workplace. ®

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