Woman sitting at a computer


An introduction to privacy

We all have the right to privacy, at home, at work and everywhere else. But it’s becoming harder and harder to protect that right as technology makes it easier to monitor activities and collect information.

Privacy in the workplace

Employers have many ways of observing workers, including computer monitoring, CCTV, using secret customers, intercepting phone calls and emails and even drug testing and the collection of information about life outside the workplace.

Your employer has a lot of information about you – including everything you told them when you first applied for a job, all the financial information they need to pay you, and your sickness and disciplinary records.

Laws designed to protect your privacy

The 1998 Data Protection Act and the 1998 Human Rights Act are the main pieces of legislation that protect your privacy, but there are grey areas around both acts that are best dealt with by negotiating with employers in each place of work.

The Data Protection Act

This important act states that information gathered about employees must be:

  • fairly and lawfully processed;
  • processed for limited purposes;
  • adequate, relevant and not excessive;
  • accurate;
  • not kept for longer than is necessary;
  • processed in line with employees’ and members’ rights;
  • secure;
  • not transferred to other countries without adequate protection.

The Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act gives you the power to defend your rights in the courts and sets out rules that public organisations must treat everyone equally, with fairness, dignity and respect. This includes the right to privacy in the workplace.

How UNISON can help

UNISON can help you defend your privacy at work, however it is threatened. The issue could be CCTV, telephone, internet or email monitoring, the way sensitive personal information is gathered or used, or your employer’s reluctance to share the information they have about you.

An important part of our work is agreeing policies with employers so they are clear and easy to understand.

Next steps for UNISON reps

This is a notoriously difficult subject thanks to the numerous grey areas under the law, so it’s important to familiarise yourself with UNISON’s Privacy and Data Protection Handbook which is aimed at UNISON reps.  The Handbook provides practical guidance on what you should do to make sure that you comply with the Data Protection Act.  Your branch should also have a copy. 

You should negotiate local agreements with employers. Make sure you’re familiar with UNISON’s guidance on bargaining over privacy.

Read the Thompsons’ guides to the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act to make sure you’re up to speed with the law.

Familiarise yourself with the Information Commissioner’s employment practice code (PDF).

Branches and branch officers must exercise care and respect for all data and files about, or kept on behalf of, a member or potential member. Key points for branches to note are:

  • branches are free to ensure that every rep has a list of members in her/his constituency;
  • membership records should not be disclosed to third parties;
  • data on RMS, or data received or obtained for recruitment and organising purposes, must be obtained from a legitimate source and must be kept accurate;
  • branch computers or files must be secure from unauthorised access;
  • there should be no need to print a member’s complete record from RMS;
  • written or electronic documents containing information or opinions about an individual may be viewed by that individual at some stage under DPA rules;
  • branches must pass any requests for information under the DPA to the regional office as quickly as possible, and should not send any information to the individual unless requested to do so by the region or data protection officer.
Key facts
  • Your privacy rights are protected under two pieces of legislation: the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act.
  • Privacy at work gets more complicated all the time thanks to advances in technology.
  • Because of this complexity, the laws in place to protect your privacy need to be supported by good local agreements with your employer.
  • UNISON is committed to helping build these local agreements – and to fighting for members’ privacy rights when conflicts arise.



  • How do I find out what information UNISON holds about me?

    You’ll find all the information you need about UNISON’s own privacy policy on the website, including details of how to request copies of your personal information that UNISON has.

  • I have asked my employer for the information they hold on me but they have refused to share it. What are my rights?

    You are entitled to request copies of your personal data that your employer has from them. Your right only extends to information about you, not anyone else.  If your employer refuses to give you what you want you should ask them why they are not giving it to you.  You can also ask for further information if they provide you with some explanation and your want more.  It is important to note that personal data can be withheld in response to requests in very limited circumstances, such as if the information is legal advice.  If you believe that your employer is withholding your personal data inappropriately you can complain to the data protection regulator, the Information Commissioner. Speak to your UNISON rep about how to proceed.

  • I think my employer is monitoring me at work. What should I do?

    Other than in exceptional circumstances your employer must tell you exactly how and why they are monitoring you. If you think they are keeping something from you, speak to your UNISON rep straight away.

Information and privacy

  • Can my employer keep old information about me?

    You may request that your employer destroy specific information and they must oblige unless they have a legal reason to keep it. This may include out of date information about you. If any documents are to be destroyed, you should make sure that your employer disposes of them appropriately (such as shredding).

  • What information can my potential employer ask for?

    Your employer may ask for reference details from previous employers. This may include sickness or absence details and information about your work. In some cases your employer may need to ask the Criminal Records Bureau for a record of your criminal background. This is known as a CRB check.

  • What if I feel stressed because of CCTV and monitoring software at work?

    Your employer must have very good reason to use covert surveillance equipment, even if they inform you. Contact your local UNISON rep, who can help you speak to your employer about the issue.

  • What if my potential employer finds incorrect information about me?

    As a potential employee, you should be allowed to defend against or dispute any false information that may lower your chance of getting the job.