In a blow to privacy campaigners, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled that private messages at work can be read by those workers’ employers. Texts and chat sent during working hours, via any sort of chat software and webmail accounts within a European company, can be viewed by your boss at his or her request, according to the Guardian.
A case was brought to the ECtHR by an engineer from Romania named Bogdan Barbulescu. In 2007, his employer accessed his messages – which he believed to be sent in complete confidence – and subsequently fired him. He believed that his employers were breaching his right to confidential correspondence, and he had hoped the court would agree with him. Mr Barbulescu's case had previously been dismissed by Romanian courts.
Unfortunately, this was not the end result: Judges declared that he breached the company’s rules, and that his employer had every right to check on his workplace activities. This decision, handed down by the ECtHR this Tuesday, is one that has to be obeyed by all countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, including the U.K. However, under U.K. human rights laws, British judges must take into account the ECtHR’s decisions, but they are not legally bound by them.
This treaty, ratified on September 3, 1953, protects an individual’s right to freedom, right to life, security, freedom of religion, and freedom against discrimination, among other things. The convention does guarantee the right to privacy under Article 8, which provides a person with the right to privacy in his/her family, personal and home life, and his/her correspondence.
What degree of snooping is fair game at work? wk1003mike/Shutterstock
Nevertheless, in this instance, the judges decided that because the engineer was accessing a work account, the firm had not been erroneous in taking action against him, in line with their rules. They did note though that, despite this ruling, workers should be protected against unfettered snooping, but it wasn’t made clear how this was to be maintained or monitored.
The judges also note that the company acted proportionally, especially as any other information on his work computer – other than the chat program, Yahoo Messenger, which he used for worktime correspondence – was not accessed. Mr Barbulescu was also given forewarning that his chat account was about to be checked. The device used to send the chat messengers was owned by the employer, but the judges did not state that if a personal device was used the final verdict would have been any different.
However, out of the eight judges ruling on the case, there was a sole dissenter. One of the judges noted that “all employees should be notified personally of the [their company’s online privacy] policy and consent to it explicitly,” according to BBC News.