Employers have the right to spy on staff’s work emails and electronic messages, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.
According to The Telegraph, the decision was made in Strasbourg after a Romanian engineer who was fired for sending messages to his fiancée on his private Yahoo chats challenged his employer in the High Court.
Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu said he was made aware of the surveillance of his Yahoo message account in 2007, which he had been instructed to set up for work.
Mr Barbulescu was informed that his chats had been monitored over several days and that a 45-page transcript had found a number of messages he had exchanged with his fiancée.
Having lost the case in Romania he took it to the Human Rights Court in 2008, arguing that his employer’s decision to end his contract was based on a violation of his rights to private correspondence.
But on Tuesday the court ruled that it was not “unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that the employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours”.
Mr Barbulescu’s employer said it had banned all members of the company’s staff from sending personal messages while at work.
The judges said that Mr Barbulescu had not “convincingly explained why he had used the Yahoo messenger account for personal purposes”.
The court’s decision binds Britain because it has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and lawyers have said it will guide the European Union’s top tribunal in future cases and rulings.
The ruling will mean that companies across the UK will have to be clear on when employers can send personal emails from their work accounts.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, told the Daily Telegraph that employers need to be very clear about any monitoring systems they have in place, as “covert monitoring is very hard to justify”.
He said: “I think employers need to be clear about the reasons about why they are monitoring so people don’t feel there is this blanket Big Brother approach. I think this case is just a reminder of the need for clarity and what happens when there is ambiguity.”
The Information Commissioner recommends employers encourage workers to mark messages as ‘private’ and ‘personal’ to help them protect their communications and not to open these unless there’s a very good reason for doing so.
On Tuesday the judges said: “The employer acted within its disciplinary powers since, as the domestic courts found, it had accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been legitimate.”