8 February 2005
Online privacy, spam and the Stored Communications Act
Andrew Schatz Lawyer
Australian Government Solicitor
T 08 8943 1400 F 08 8943 1420
Two recent legislative developments herald a new era
of parliamentary willingness to address technological
issues long claimed by many to be beyond regulation or
control. They also mark the end of an age of innocence
concerning the consequences of online activities and
the beginning of a new era of accountability in Australian
On 14 December 2004, the Telecommunications (Interception)
Amendment (Stored Communications) Act 2004 ('the
Stored Communications Act') received Royal Assent,
resulting in various amendments to the Telecommunications
(Interception) Act 1979 ('the TI Act').
A year and two days earlier, the Spam Act 2003 received
Royal Assent, prior to its commencement on 10 April 2004.
The passing of the Stored Communications Act provides
a valuable opportunity to reflect on whether current policies
and procedures have kept pace with changes in technology
and new legal requirements such as those introduced by
the Spam Act in 2004. At the same time, owners and administrators
of information technology and communications systems should
consider whether there are any additional steps they can
take to preserve and protect their IT facilities without
breaking the law.
The Stored Communications Act
The Stored Communications Act will operate for a year
from 15 December 2004. During that period, certain stored
communications (including certain emails) are excluded
from the operative provisions of the TI Act.
The prohibition on interception of communications
Section 7(1) of the TI Act relevantly provides:
A person shall not:
(b) authorize, suffer or permit another person to intercept;
(c) do any act or thing that will enable him or her
or another person to intercept;
a communication passing over a telecommunications system.
Under section 6(1), interception consists of listening
to or recording, by any means, a communication in its passage
over a telecommunications system without the knowledge
of the person making the communication ('the sender').
There are a range of exceptions to the prohibition in section
7(1), but the principal exceptions involve interception
under a warrant.
Prior to the amendments introduced by the Stored Communications
Act, it was generally unlawful to intercept (without a
warrant) any communication passing over a telecommunications
system without the knowledge of the sender. This raised
some very difficult legal and practical issues in the context
of the internet and email with respect to when employers
or network administrators could lawfully record communications
passing over their networks.
The main difficulty is that, while steps can be taken
to notify the people who use an organisation's internet
and email facilities that their communications may be recorded
prior to delivery, it is practically impossible to warn
all potential senders of communications to an organisation
that their communications may be recorded prior to receipt.
Not surprisingly, many employers and network administrators
were concerned that a number of common administrative practices
could breach the TI Act despite the fact they play an essential
role in protecting network integrity and limiting the potential
for vicarious liability in the event of misuse.
Legitimate reasons for interception
Examples of common administrative practices that may involve
recording communications in their passage over a telecommunications
- copying suspect messages that appear to contain viruses,
spam or inappropriate material for subsequent inspection
by network administrators or security staff
- backing up email servers as a disaster recovery mechanism
to guard against data loss
- monitoring internet and email use to ensure users
do not damage or misuse telecommunications infrastructure
by sending inappropriate, malicious or potentially damaging
- gathering evidence of misuse or the commission of
crimes for later use in criminal or disciplinary proceedings
- running packet sniffing software for diagnostic purposes,
to ensure the efficient and effective maintenance of
networks or to detect misuse
- in some cases, as an integral function of filtering
or blocking technologies designed to protect networks
from loss or damage due to spam, viruses and so on.
Due to the difficulties associated with applying the TI
Act to email and internet traffic, some or all of these
practices may have been contrary to the TI Act prior to
the amendments introduced by the Stored Communications
Despite this, employers and network administrators who
provide email and internet access have a legal obligation
to supervise and restrict the manner in which their property
is used. 1 A number of sexual harassment, anti-discrimination
and copyright cases have consistently highlighted the willingness
of Australian courts to hold employers accountable for
the actions of people who use their email and internet
facilities to break the law. 2 Other areas of potential
liability include defamation laws 3 and liability for pecuniary
penalties under the Spam Act. 4
Before the amendments introduced by the Stored Communications
Act took effect, employers and network administrators seeking
to guard their systems against damage or misuse faced difficult
choices in their quest to strike the right balance between
adequate supervision and protection of personal privacy.
Many felt trapped between the laws requiring them to monitor
and supervise user activities and the laws restricting
the manner in which such monitoring could take place. The
Stored Communications Act should make this job easier by
providing increased scope for legitimate filtering and
monitoring practices, although it should be noted that
that is not its primary intent.
The effect of the new provisions
The Attorney-General stated in his second reading speech
that the amendments introduced by the Stored Communications
Act '… address obstacles faced by our law enforcement
and regulatory agencies … [and] are an urgent but
temporary solution to operational difficulties'. 5
The Stored Communications Act amends the TI Act such that 'stored
communications' are no longer subject to the general
prohibition against interception imposed by section 7 of
the TI Act. The term 'stored communications' is
now defined in the TI Act as follows:
7(3A) … a stored communication is a communication
that is stored on equipment or any other thing, but does
(a) a voice over internet protocol (VOIP) communication;
(b) any other communication;
stored on a highly transitory basis as an integral function
of the technology used in its transmission.
Note: Momentary buffering (including momentary storage
in a router in order to resolve a path for further transmission)
is an example of storage on a highly transitory basis.
Accordingly, since they are not stored on a highly transitory
basis, emails on computer hard drives, central email servers
or other storage devices are no longer subject to the general
prohibition against interception of 'communications
passing over a telecommunications system' for the
purposes of section 7(1) of the TI Act. Similarly, unread
SMS or MMS messages stored on central storage facilities
or on mobile phone handsets are also excluded from the
general prohibition on interception of communications.
The Stored Communications Act further amends the TI Act
such that stored communications are not caught by the term 'lawfully
obtained information' as defined in section 6E. Lawfully
obtained information is essentially information obtained
by lawfully intercepting communications as opposed to unlawfully
intercepting communications in contravention of section
7(1) of the TI Act. The new amendments therefore remove
stored communications from the scope of the restrictions
on use and disclosure of lawfully obtained information
set out in Part VII of the TI Act, clearing the way for
them to be used in legal or disciplinary proceedings. However,
use and disclosure of stored communications is still subject
to the Privacy Act 1988 ('the Privacy Act')
and various other relevant laws.
It is also worth remembering that some monitoring practices
may even be unlawful during the period of operation of
the new amendments. For example, the use of packet sniffing
software for diagnostic or monitoring purposes may breach
the TI Act if it involves the real time recording of communications
rather than the subsequent copying of stored communications.
Accordingly, employers and network administrators should
exercise caution to ensure their activities, however well
intentioned, do not break the law.
Finally, the amendments introduced by the Stored Communications
Act only have effect for a period of 12 months following
their commencement on 15 December 2004. During this 12
month period, the Attorney-General's Department is
to conduct a review of the regulation of access to stored
communications under the TI Act. 6
The review may result in more long-term amendments, but
if not, the legal position will revert to its previous
state on 16 December 2005. Employers and network administrators
should bear that in mind when drafting and implementing
IT security and acceptable use policies and procedures.
The Privacy Act
In addition to the restrictions imposed by the TI Act,
employers and IT administrators considering the extent
to which they can monitor the use of their internet and
email facilities need to consider the relevant requirements
of the Privacy Act.
On 30 March 2000, the Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner
released Guidelines on Workplace E-mail, Web Browsing
and Privacy ('the Privacy Guidelines'). The publication
is available on the Privacy Commissioner's website
The Privacy Guidelines provide a useful overview of the
manner in which employers and IT administrators can implement
logging and monitoring practices without contravening the
relevant Privacy Principles set out in the Privacy Act.
The main guideline is that monitoring and recording practices
should only be carried out in a fair and lawful manner.
Internet and email use should therefore only be recorded
after employees and any other relevant users have been
put on notice that such recording is likely to take place.
7 IT security and acceptable use policies are helpful in
this regard, as are electronic pop-ups and click-wrap agreements
requiring users to consent to monitoring and directing
them to the location of more detailed policies.
These measures may also have several indirect benefits
including a degree of additional protection from the provisions
of the TI Act (in certain circumstances) and the ease with
which warning messages can be tailored to put users on
notice about what constitutes acceptable use. Ensuring
users properly understand what they can and cannot do using
IT facilities is essential to managing the risk of vicarious
liability for inappropriate behaviour while still protecting
legitimate rights to privacy. 8
Once information regarding user activities has been recorded,
it should be handled carefully to ensure the relevant Privacy
Principles governing storage, use and disclosure of personal
information are observed. 9
Other legal requirements such as those imposed under the
Freedom of Information Act 1982 10 and the Archives Act
1983 should also be observed.
The Spam Act
Issue 9 of AGS Commercial Notes published on 6 April 2004
and available at <http://www.ags.gov.au/publications/index.htm> contains
an overview of the changes government organisations should
make to ensure compliance with the Spam Act. Almost a year
has passed since the Spam Act commenced, and while many
organisations have changed the way they operate, others
may not have found the time to make the necessary changes
to ensure compliance with their new legal obligations.
As discussed in our previous article, the application
of the Spam Act extends beyond the regulation of what is
commonly referred to as spam, and it will affect all organisations
that use email and internet facilities, including government
agencies. It is therefore essential that organisations
who have not reviewed their IT security and acceptable
use policies since the Spam Act commenced take the necessary
steps to do so as soon as possible.
Leaving legal matters to one side, there are sound policy
reasons for government agencies to be seen to be complying
with the Spam Act's requirements. In that regard,
the Department of Communications, Information Technology
and the Arts (DCITA) recently released a publication entitled:
Spam Act 2003 – A practical guide for government ('the Spam Guide'), available on the DCITA
website at: <http://www.dcita.gov.au/ie/spam_home>.
The Spam Guide highlights the importance of government
bodies complying with the spirit of the Spam Act rather
than relying on the limited exemptions available to them
because of their government status. It relevantly states
that before relying on the designated commercial electronic
messages exemptions set out in clause 3 of Schedule 1 to
the Spam Act (which apply to certain messages sent by government
bodies), government bodies should be satisfied:
- that the message they propose to send is essential
to the work of government, and
- that there is no practical alternate way of complying
with the Spam Act's consent requirements.
Reviewing IT security and acceptable use policies
Organisations should regularly review their IT security
and acceptable use policies to ensure they keep pace with
changes in law and technology. The recent reforms brought
about by the Spam Act and Stored Communications Act are
simply two more reasons to undertake a review aimed at
ensuring that all legal risks are covered and that all
relevant policies are being adhered to, including those
embodied in the Privacy Guidelines and the Spam Guide.
Reviewing IT security and acceptable use policies requires
consideration of a range of practical, legal and policy
issues. AGS can assist with the process by ensuring that
all relevant legal risks are properly identified and addressed
at the earliest possible stage. This may be of great benefit
to organisations struggling to reconcile unfamiliar laws
with rapidly advancing technologies.
Tips for clients
- Review all IT security and acceptable use policies
to ensure they do not endorse practices that are unlawful
under the provisions of the TI Act.
- Put in place adequate safeguards to ensure employees
and other relevant users comply with the relevant requirements
of the Spam Act.
- Ensure logging or monitoring practices are carried
out in a fair and lawful manner and that they comply
with all relevant legal requirements including those
- the TI Act
- the Privacy Act
- the Spam Act
- the Archives Act
- the Freedom of Information Act
- all other relevant Commonwealth or State legislation.
- Ensure staff and other users are properly educated
regarding what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable
use of your organisation's facilities and make
sure their knowledge is regularly reinforced through
appropriate training sessions and online screen prompts.
- Regularly review policies and procedures to ensure
they keep abreast of any new changes in law or technology.
- Watch this space for future updates on the state of
the law following the expiry of the amendments introduced
by the Stored Communications Act on 15 December 2005.
Andrew Schatz has an extensive knowledge
of technology related legal issues and has worked on a
range of IT/IP
legal matters. He has degrees in both law and computer
science and was recently featured in the 'IT Whiz
Kid' section of the ZDNet Australia and Australian
Computer Society web sites. Andrew regularly presents on
information technology and communications law issues.
1 See, for example: 'Misconduct in E-mail and Internet
use at Work', AGS Legal Briefing No. 58, 27 February
2001; J Catanzariti, 'Being online and staying in
line: new technology and the workplace', Employment
Law Bulletin 6(1) March/April 2000: 1–10; and D Ellinson, 'Employees' personal
use of their employer's email system', Australian
Business Law Review 29(2) April 2001: 165–169.
2 See the reasoning of the High Court of Australia in
University of New South Wales v Moorhouse (1975) 133 CLR
1, a case involving infringement of copyright using photocopying
facilities provided by a university.
3 According to the High Court of Australia in Dow Jones & Company
Inc v Gutnick (2002) 210 CLR 575, the defamation laws that
apply to online material are those of the jurisdiction
where the intended recipient receives and views the relevant
4 The various ancillary contravention provisions contained
in sections 16(9), 17(5) and 18(6) of the Spam Act arguably
provide scope for third parties to be held liable for the
actions of people who send contravening messages using
their communications facilities.
5 The Hon. Philip Ruddock MP, Attorney-General, House
of Representatives Hansard, 8 December 2004, pp. 30–31.
6 The Hon. Philip Ruddock MP, Attorney-General, House
of Representatives Hansard, 8 December 2004, pp. 30–31.
7 See Information Privacy Principle ('IPP')
1 and National Privacy Principles ('NPPs')
8 See, for example: K Levi, 'Guidelines for monitoring
workplace emails', Internet Law Bulletin 3(4) July
2000; M Paterson, 'Monitoring of employee emails
and other electronic communications', University
of Tasmania Law Review 21(1) 2002: 1–19; and K Eivazi, 'Employees' email
privacy and the challenge of advancing technology',
Privacy Law And Policy Reporter 10(5) September/October
9 See IPPs 4, 9–11 and NPPs 2–4.
10 See Re Langer and Telstra Corporation Limited (2002)
68 ALD 762 which dealt with Telstra's obligations
to locate and produce emails under section 24A of the Freedom
of Information Act 1982.
For legal advice please contact Andrew Schatz of our Darwin
office on tel: (08) 8943 1400, email: firstname.lastname@example.org,
or Robert Orr QC of our Canberra office on tel: (02) 6253
7129, email: email@example.com or
any of the lawyers listed below:
02 6253 7231
02 9581 7624
03 9242 1290
07 3360 5767
08 9268 1137
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03 6220 5474
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to AGS clients for general information only and should
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