July 10, 2021
A major company says it plans to scour workers’ internet history for “adverse online behaviour” in a chilling example of how a proposed new law could apply to Australian workers.
Queensland power company Powerlink presented a number of examples of “online behaviours” it would seek to examine as part of a “digital footprint check” under a proposed amendment to security laws.
Listed in the presentation was the presence of news articles or media profiles featured in an employee’s internet search history that may bring “reputational harm” to Powerlink.
The company, which is owned by the Queensland government, also told union delegates it would search for “indications of poor reliability or trustworthiness, such as flagrant dishonesty” and if the person’s internet activity reveals signs they may “easily succumb to groupthink or other conformity pressures”.
Electrical Trades Union national policy officer Trevor Gauld said “one of the examples Powerlink gave was if an employee shared a political meme about legalised marijuana that might be their political view and that somehow that would be a breach”.
“It would be a chilling effect on people’s freedom of political expression and freedom of speech,” Mr Gauld told NCA NewsWire.
“But beyond that, this really is a situation of employers using counter-terrorism legislation to prosecute human resources agenda.”
The new laws would give employers the power to background check millions of Australians in a wide range of industries.
The proposed bill requires employers to conduct thorough checks to “identify each hazard where there is a material risk” and present “an annual report relating to its critical infrastructure risk management program” to its board or governing body.
Under the bill, 11 “critical infrastructure” industries are outlined as potential risks to security including the food and grocery sector, transport, financial services and water and sewerage sector.
It has proposed to apply powers aimed at nullifying potential threats of domestic terrorism on professions such as podiatry, physiotherapy and those operating a life insurance business.
Speaking at a parliamentary committee hearing on the new bill, the ETU’s Chris Humphreys, who also serves as a Powerlink delegate, cited the judgment of political memes as evidence the legislation was an “overreach”.
“For me, that was concerning,” he told the committee on Friday.
Mr Humphreys said if “subjective analysis” was taken of every employee’s digital footprint, most would be considered “no longer fit for the role”.
“I understand the cyber security part but this personal level, around physical assets, I just don’t believe there’s evidence of there being an issue in the first place. These checks seem to overreach to the point they could be used for other purposes,” he said.
In a response to NCA NewsWire, Powerlink declined to comment directly on the example of a worker sharing political memes being a breach of security.
The company said it would respond to changes in law to “comply with any expanded personnel vetting checks (which may include digital footprint checks for selected roles) required under legislation, if enacted”.
“We place significant value on the security of Queensland’s transmission network as critical infrastructure, and remain committed to engaging with our people and the ETU about the changes from the proposed legislation,” a spokesperson said.
Mr Gauld told NCA NewsWire the Security Legislation Amendment Bill was “way too broad and way too vague in its application”.
He said four industries listed in the bill – hospital, transport, food retailing, medical and health care – accounted for two million workers alone who would be “subjected to significant profiling by their employer for matters completely unrelated to their employment under the guise of counter-terrorism”.
Australians who work in industries like food and grocery will be placed under a similar microscope to those at risk of international espionage, Mr Gould warned.
“That's how broad the bill is,” he said.
“An apprentice electrician now somehow poses a terror threat to the power industry; it's beyond ludicrous.”
Committee chair, Senator James Paterson, rejected this claim during the hearing at parliament on Friday.
“It would obviously be absurd if an apprentice electrician was subjected to the same induction and security checks as an ASIO officer,” he said.
A spokesperson for Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the proposed bill would only apply to a “relatively small number of employees” and was more to assess “information relating to an individual’s identity, criminal history, citizenship status, residency status and/or entitlement to work in Australia”.
“Australians aren’t fooled by the ETU’s gross exaggerations; the community rightly expects that those working on our nation’s critical infrastructure are of good character and able to pass a basic background check,” the spokesperson said.
During the hearing, the Australia Council of Trade Unions’ Joseph Mitchell said the representatives recognised the bill contained new and required laws.
“We’re not opposed to legislation like this which ensures a framework for addressing systemic risks to infrastructure, however the legislation as drafted lacks some clear principles for its implementation,” he said.
“There’s a lack of clear definition as to just who it applies to by being vague about its references to shipping and then perhaps being deemed to apply to construction and maintenance.
“There’s also a worrying lack of proportionality and limiting of the ability of employers to access this information.”
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