Judges from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have ruled that employers can read workers’ private messages sent via chat software and webmail accounts during working hours. The case was brought to light after Bogdan Barbulescu, a Romanian worker, said a firm read his Yahoo Messenger chats sent while he was at work.

Judges said he had breached the company’s rules and that his employer had a right to check on his activities.

Such policies must also protect workers against unfettered snooping, they said.

The judges, sitting in the ECHR in Strasbourg, passed their decision on Tuesday. It binds all countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes Britain.

Barbulesco had hoped the court would rule that his employer had breached his right to confidential correspondence when it accessed a log of his messages he had set up on work and personal accounts, and subsequently sacked him in 2007.

Because it believed it was accessing a work account, the judges said, the firm had not erred.
They dismissed the man’s request, saying that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”. The judges said: “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.”

Mr Barbulescu’s employer had banned its staff from sending personal messages at work.

The judges said that accessing his records was a proportionate step because the firm did not access other information stored on his work computer and Barbulescu had had prior warning that the company could check his messages.

Despite claims about the second, personal account, the judges only discussed the work account in their ruling.

The device used to send the messages was owned by the employer, and the judges did not elaborate on whether it would have made any difference if he had used a personal device.

One of the eight judges disagreed with the decision, saying that a blanket ban on personal internet use was unacceptable.

Going forward, he added, all employers should clearly explain any rules that would allow them to check on their workers’ online activities.

“All employees should be notified personally of the said policy and consent to it explicitly,” he wrote.

UK law allows proportionate checks on employees’ communications, and the judgment on Barbulescu’s case was in line with UK law and past cases.

In this particular case, Barbulescu’s employer clearly stated that employees are not able to use the internet for anything but work.

However, the case has created controversy, with some people saying that  blanket bans on personal internet use at work are unreasonable when employees retain the right to their own private life even while working. This point is particularly important to those people who work longer hours.

On the other hand, the judgement underlines the importance of having appropriate and lawful employee-monitoring policies in place and making sure both that they are communicated to employees and are adhered to by the employer.