Bosses must tell workers if they are spying on emails
Companies must tell employees if they are reading their personal emails and messages, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled.
Its judgement came in a case brought by Romanian software engineer Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu, who claimed he was unlawfully sacked by his company in 2007 for sending private messages using Yahoo Messenger.
His employer had used software to secretly monitor his computer activity. He was shown printouts of messages he’d sent, some of which discussed his sex life with his fiancée.
A Romanian court ruled in 2016 that the firm was within its rights, a decision now overturned by the ECHR. It said that his company had failed to “strike a fair balance” between protecting his privacy and ensuring the business runs smoothly.
The ECHR added that it wasn’t clear whether Mr Barbulescu had been warned his messages would be read, and that the Romanian court had failed to establish why his company was monitoring him.
It confirmed that companies can still sack employees if they use business email for personal use. However, the employer must take sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse before it gets out of hand.
Guidelines for UK companies are given in the Data Protection Act and the Interception of Communications Act. They state that companies must let employees know they are being monitored, and give a good reason for doing so.
Legal experts said the ruling wouldn’t have a big impact on UK law. Catrina Smith, employment partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, told the BBC: “It will hopefully remind employers that they need to think about these issues and be very clear with employees about what is and isn’t permissible”.
She added that employees should be “smarter about the way in which they use both personal and work devices”.