School staff have a right to privacy under human rights law. In a recent case, the personal assistant to a college principal complained that her phone, email and internet usage had been monitored by the college without her knowledge for more than 18 months. Personal phone calls were logged, email correspondence tracked and the websites she visited were analysed. The court ruled that the collection and storage of personal information from phone calls, emails and internet use interfered with her right to respect for private life and correspondence. She was awarded EUR3,000 (pound;2,150) damages and EUR6,000 for costs and expenses.
Covert monitoring is usually unacceptable unless there is concern about national security or the possibility of preventing a crime. However, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 permits communications without the consent of the caller, writer or recipient where the intention is to establish the existence of facts applicable to the college; to ascertain compliance with regulatory practices; for the purposes of quality control; to detect viruses or other dangers to the system; or to determine whether communications are relevant to the college.
Everyone in the school should know that such monitoring might take place and that no personal data will be retained unless there is any potential illegality. In such a case, the head should retain the information in confidence and discuss the issue with the member of staff concerned. It is then for the head to decide whether to take any further action.
The best way forward is to have a clear policy which excludes blanket monitoring with no stated purpose, and which sets out what monitoring takes place and why. The policy should explain how personal data collected through monitoring will be used, and confirm that it will be destroyed once it becomes redundant.
Chris Lowe, Former headteacher and trades union legal adviser.