EU ruling could see employers spying on personal messages sent by staff

The European Court of Human Rights yesterday ruled that employers are allowed to read personal messages sent by staff during working hours over private messaging platforms. The judgment follows the case of a Romanian worker, who had used a company Yahoo Messenger account that he had been asked to set up, to send private messages to his fiancée and brother.

The judges ruled that his company was within its rights to read the messages, as a result of which he was dismissed for breaking company rules which expressly forbade staff from using “computers, photocopiers, telephones, telex and fax machines for personal purposes.”

Lawyers are now warning UK employees against using phones, laptops or iPads provided by their employer to send personal information, even after work, in case employers interpret the EU ruling as giving them powers to monitor such devices as they choose. This could include use of Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, and other social media.

Although many companies already monitor staff activity online on a routine basis, it is usually to catch any staff that are breaking the law, looking at porn, or sharing confidential business information, and is permitted as along as staff have been warned in writing – e.g. in the small print of their employment contract.

Privacy campaigners also fear that yesterday’s ruling could be used by bosses to justify increased snooping on employees. ‘If you have any device that is company owned, it isn’t yours. Don’t have a private conversation on it,’ said Renate Samson, chief executive of the lobby group Big Brother Watch.

‘No employee should be in fear of being monitored by their boss. Companies must be clear with their staff about what they consider acceptable in terms of accessing the internet or using work devices. The case was acknowledged by the court as not allowing a “straightforward answer”, [and] the judgment should not be seen as an opportunity for any company to assume that surveilling their staff’s use of personal communication tools is acceptable.’

The Romanian engineer at the centre of the case told the European court that his employer had breached his human right to a ‘private life…and correspondence’ – as in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the majority of judges ruled that the company had been justified in ‘snooping’ stating: ‘The employer…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 firm accessed both the Yahoo Messenger account it had asked the employee to set up, and another he had set up for his own use, for eight days before presenting him with a 45-page printout of all the personal messages he had sent which provided the evidence the company needed to show he ‘had been blatantly wasting his time’ and dismiss him.

Head of Employment at Lawson-West, Ashley Hunt commented: “To avoid finding themselves in a difficult situation, it is advisable for employees to refrain from using work devices, even if they are able to take them home, for personal messages.” For more information on your rights at work, please contact Ashley Hunt, Carrie-Ann Randall, Vaishali Thakerar or Alex Reid at Lawson-West on 0116 212 1000.

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