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Employers 'can read private messages sent at work'

Wed 13 Jan 2016

Employers are within their rights to read private messages sent by members of staff in the workplace on their equipment, during working hours, according to a new legal ruling.
 
Bogdan Barbulescu, an engineer in Romania, took legal action after his employer dismissed him for speaking to personal as well as professional contacts on a Yahoo Messenger account set up for work purposes - in breach of the firm's rules.
 
Romania's domestic courts ruled against him and he therefore took his case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), arguing that he was entitled to confidential correspondence and that his employer breached this right by accessing his Yahoo Messenger chats.
 
However, the court determined that the company had acted appropriately, as it had banned staff from sending personal messages at work and believed it was accessing a work account.  

Sue Kelly, an employment partner at Winckworth Sherwood, commented: "In fact, it was also accessing a second, personal Yahoo Messenger account set up by Mr Barbulescu, but the judges only discussed the work account in their ruling. This means that employers should approach this ruling with care, as it may well not be authority for monitoring such personal accounts, and the judges also made it plain that employees will be protected against unfettered snooping.

"The case emphasises the importance of drawing up proper policies to define what the employer needs to monitor and why, on a proportionate basis."
 
The Court said that the company could reasonably assume any messages would be related to professional activities and that Yahoo Messenger could be used to verify if an employee had completed their professional tasks during working hours.
 
Furthermore, Mr Barbulescu was sending the messages on devices owned by the company, while he had previously been warned that the firm could check his messages.
 
Since the UK is signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights, this means the ruling applies to companies based in Britain.

Lilian Edwards, a professor of internet law at Strathclyde University, responded to the ruling by pointing out that the employer in this specific case had clearly said beforehand that employees are not allowed to use the internet for personal reasons. 

Speaking to BBC News, she said that while this policy might not be popular, it is "completely legal". As a result, the firm "seems to have played this by the book".
 
Professor Edwards added that it is unreasonable to impose blanket bans on personal internet use in the workplace, as people are still entitled to a private life even during working hours. She stressed this is very important partly because people tend to work longer hours than they used to.

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