ABC management signed off on requests to access the email accounts of current and former employees without their knowledge more than a dozen times in a two-year period, The New Daily can exclusively reveal.
The ABC also declined multiple opportunities to deny that the accessed accounts included those of journalists or that inboxes were opened without specifically notifying the user.
According to internal emails obtained through freedom of information laws, senior staff at the national broadcaster allowed colleagues to peek into inboxes that weren’t theirs at least 13 times between November 2014 and December last year.
The justifications for the snooping included locating contracts and correspondence between the ABC and other parties and ensuring “continuation of business” following staff departures. While the majority of inboxes accessed belonged to ex-employees and contractors, ABC workers on leave were also affected.
The cases include:
- A former employee’s inbox being accessed in November 2014 “to check on a listener response email which has escalated”;
- A recently departed staffer’s emails being searched for messages to the “News Exec” or ABC People, the broadcaster’s human resources department, and documents connected to redundancies of journalists in South Australia in mid-2015;
- An employee who had his account searched last July for a “high-priority email” from a content supplier to the BBC while he was on leave;
- A contractor whose account was approved for access in July 2016 to allow a new employee “follow up” on her work while she was away from the ABC;
- A lawyer formerly employed by the ABC whose inbox was accessed in March 2015 to check if payment preconditions were met for teen drama Nowhere Boys as part of an internal audit.
The emails obtained by The New Daily, which have names and identifying details redacted, do not indicate that the employees in question were notified.
“As with most organisations and media companies, ABC staff email accounts are not owned by individual staff members but are a workplace tool provided for the purposes of carrying out work for the ABC,” a spokesperson said, adding that work accounts were only accessed in line with a “robust set of principles” that is outlined to all employees.
Internal policy at the broadcaster states that work emails are “automatically archived and held as a record which are monitored from time to time and, if necessary, may be recovered and used by the ABC”.
Asked if the ABC could guarantee the security of journalists’ sources under such conditions, the spokesman said this was “sacrosanct” at the public broadcaster.
“ABC takes the protection of journalists’ sources very seriously and understands the absolute necessity for journalists to protect those sources,” he said.
A representative from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, however, said that employees in general should be notified before their emails were accessed from the outside.
“Where an employer believes they have reason to place an employee under surveillance or access their communications, the employee must at the very least be be notified first, a clear and genuine reason supplied and that employee has the right to be represented by their union in this process,” the spokesperson said, adding that they could not comment on the particulars at the ABC.
Sinddy Ealy, ABC Section Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, said the broadcaster should make “every reasonable effort” to contact an employee before opening their inbox but acknowledged there may sometimes be legitimate reasons for access.