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A union complained that a company had a security policy allowing a security guard to inspect all bags carried on or off a particular company site, and vehicles entering or leaving.

The union alleged that the policy was inconsistent with provisions in the company's employment contract which provided that company personnel 'shall not search cars, lockers, bags or any other items belonging to an employee without his/her consent and in his/her presence'.

The union considered the collection of personal information by inspecting bags and vehicles was not necessary for the company to achieve its stated purposes. The union complained to me that these actions amounted to an interference with its members' privacy. The union's complaint raised issues under information privacy principles 1 and 4.

After the company agreed to amend its security policy by excluding handbags from the inspection and search procedure, I formed the opinion that the company's actions were not in breach of either privacy principle.

Principle 1

Principle 1 provides that:

Personal information shall not be collected by any agency unless-
(a) The information is collected for a lawful purpose connected with a function or activity of the agency; and
(b) The collection of the information is necessary for that purpose.

The principle's two-step test required me to consider first, the company's purpose for inspecting and searching employees' personal property and whether that was connected with its functions or activities and, second, whether the collection was necessary for the company to achieve its purpose.

Purpose

The company advised that, as an employer, it was responsible for maintaining the health and safety standards prescribed in the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, and for ensuring the safety of employees by preventing unlawful activities. In this context, the company referred to incidents in the past which had led to its security policy.

There had been a bomb threat at the site which involved evacuation of the site and an estimated $100,000 loss of production. The police had advised the company to improve its security measures. There were also instances of drug and alcohol use where heavy machinery was operated. Following threats of violence, the company was concerned to ensure no weapons were brought on to the site. The company also gave me a list of thefts of company property over a number of years.

The company considered its purpose for collecting the information by inspection and search was to identify security risks in order to prevent unlawful behaviour and minimise potential hazards.

I agreed that part of the company's function was to ensure the security of its property, its staff's property and staff safety. I therefore considered that the company's collection of information for security purposes was for a lawful purpose connected with the company's functions and activities.

Necessity of collection

The second part of the test is that the collection must also be necessary for that purpose. An inspection or search of an employee's bag or vehicle could result in the collection of personal information about an employee which may not be relevant to the company's purpose for collecting the information. I examined both the inspection and search procedures.

Inspection
The policy provided that all individuals entering or leaving the site be invited to allow a security guard to inspect bags and vehicles. The security guard was to view contents only and not rifle through belongings.

The company advised that, following the introduction of the inspection policy, there had been no further serious threats to the personal safety of employees or others on site. As a result, it was decided that no inspections would be carried out when individuals entered the site. The company said that it would re-introduce inspection of incoming cars and bags only if events required it.

It appeared to me that the inspection of cars, car boots and bags of individuals leaving the site was necessary to achieve the company's purpose of security of company property and staff property. I accepted that sports bags or carry bags had the potential to conceal items of company property (such as scales or laptop computers) which had been stolen in the past. I was satisfied that it was reasonable for security guards to inspect a bag or car boot that would be able to conceal such items. I took into account that the inspection policy provided that an inspection was to be as unobtrusive as possible: the inspection involved only a cursory glance. I was persuaded that the inspection was necessary to ensure the safety of company and employee property and that the actions of the company were not in breach of principle 1.

Search
The company advised that where there was a good reason to suspect that a person may possess company property, that person would have his or her bag or vehicle searched, in addition to the preliminary inspection. Employees would have their property searched only if they gave informed consent as set out in the employment contract.

The company said that what constituted a 'good reason' for a search was determined on the facts of each case. This could be based on the actions of the individual concerned, the appearance of the vehicle or bags, or reliable information that the individual possessed hazardous or unauthorised goods.

In light of past incidents that the company referred to involving health and safety issues and unlawful activity, I formed the opinion that the company's action in collecting information by conducting searches, where there is a good reason to suspect that a person may possess unauthorised goods, was necessary for its purpose of ensuring the security of the site and the employees, and was not in breach of principle 1.

Principle 4

Principle 4 provides that personal information must not be collected by an agency by unlawful means or by means that, in the circumstances of the case, are unfair or intrude to an unreasonable extent upon the personal affairs of the individual concerned.

Memoranda and articles had been given to all staff explaining the reasons why the company had implemented the policy, and the ramifications of refusing to comply. Visitors were informed of the policy and the reasons for it at the site's security gate. The company considered that, as informed consent was requested, the search process was voluntary and it did not force an inspection or search to take place. I was satisfied that employees and visitors were aware of the policy.

As noted above, the security guards did not rummage through an individual's bag. The inspection was cursory only. I also noted that individuals had the option of leaving bags and cars outside the site.

However, I was concerned that the company was searching handbags. It appeared, from the list of missing equipment supplied to me, that the company was interested primarily in the theft of large expensive items, such as scales or laptops. Handbags are capable of concealing small items, including drugs, but not larger items. I expressed my concerns to the company. As a result, the company acknowledged that it was not necessary to inspect and search handbags. It agreed to an amended security policy excluding handbags from the inspection and search procedure.

Taking all of these factors into account, it was my opinion that the company's actions in collecting personal information by inspecting and searching the contents of bags or cars were not in breach of principle 4.

The union advised me that, subject to continued compliance by the company with the amended policy, it accepted my opinion. After receiving a copy of the amended policy from the company, I closed my file.

Indexing terms: Collection of personal information - Manufacturer - Security of site - Inspection and search of employees' bags and cars - Information privacy principle 1

Collection of personal information - Manufacturer - Inspection and search of employees' bags and cars - Consent required - Cursory inspection - Information privacy principle 4

June 2002