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European ruling gives employers access to workers’ private messages

Alex Yau
January 14, 2016

The ruling follows a Romanian engineer’s accusations a former employer had breached the Human Rights Act

A landmark ruling has been made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) allowing companies to read private messages sent by staff on messenger apps and email accounts in working hours.

All countries, including Britain, who have approved the European Convention on Human Rights have to follow the ruling.

It was made in Strasbourg on Tuesday (December 12) following accusations by Romanian engineer Bogdan Barbelescu that a former employer had breached article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Article 8 reads: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”

Barbelescu claimed his former employer had breached the act after accessing his private messages. His contract was terminated in August 2007 after the company discovered he was using a professional Yahoo Messenger account to speak to his brother and fiancée in working hours. His former bosses accessed his messages, approached him with a 45-page transcript and dismissed him for professional negligence.

The case was lost in Romania’s domestic courts before Barbelescu appealed to the ECHR. Judges ruled against Barbelescu and said he had breached company rules prohibiting the use of Yahoo Messenger for personal conversations. The Court said his employer was right to check his activities because the account was set up for professional usage. Barbelescu’s device used to send messages was owned by the employer.

In its decision, the Court said it “is not unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that the employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours.”

“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. The court sees no reason to question these findings.”


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