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The Australian government is considering extending email snooping powers currently restricted to security services to all employers.

Using the usual canard of terrorism, Australia's deputy prime minister Julia Gillard said today the government was considering giving employers the right to snoop on staff emails without consent.

Gillard said the move was about protecting "critical infrastructure", but not about "who did what at the Christmas party".

She said: "When we think of infrastructure, we think of roads and bridges and big things. But our technology is a big infrastructure issue these days. If our banking system collapsed, if our government electronic systems collapsed obviously that would have huge implications for society."

Australian civil liberties groups were less impressed, saying there was a danger of losing the balance between maintaining freedoms and providing law enforcement with sufficient powers to fight terrorism.

Legal restrictions on Australian firms reading staff emails vary from state to state. In New South Wales companies are free to read their staff emails at the moment - as long as they notify them first. If you are using a work address, work PC and a work server, then some form "ownership" is usually assumed.

From Gillard's comments it is unclear whether the changes would be limited to infrastructure companies such as utilities or apply for all businesses.

In the UK employers have full access to staff emails and phone calls and many larger companies have full-time staff to monitor staff communications.®

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