A judgment in the European Court of Human Rights this week has generated front page headlines in many newspapers. The apparent conclusion of the media was that the European Court had told employers in the UK that it was perfectly alright to ‘snoop’ on private messages that employees might send at work using the company computer or smartphone.
However, the truth behind the decision is a little less dramatic.
The facts in brief were that a Romanian employee was asked by his employer to create a Yahoo Messenger account to respond to enquiries from clients. The employer monitored the use of the account and discovered that he was using it to send personal messages during work time. He was dismissed for breaching company rules which stated that use of the employer’s computers for personal purposes was strictly forbidden.
His claim that his employer had violated his rights to privacy were dismissed by the Romanian courts and so he took his claim to Europe on the grounds that this breached the European Convention of Human Rights which states “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”
His claim failed. The right to privacy was a qualified right so that it had to be balanced against the rights of others. It was held that it was not unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that its employees were completing their professional tasks during their working hours. Therefore, the potential infringement of his human rights had been justified.
An important factor was that the employer was monitoring a workplace system which it expected would only contain professional information. Personal use of the computer was after all strictly forbidden. As it did not set out to monitor personal messages but business activities the decision that it had acted reasonably is not that surprising.
The key point for UK employers to remember is that it is important to inform employees what restrictions apply when communicating online in the workplace. In practice this will generally be part of a wider policy regarding employee activities online in and out of the workplace.
 Barbulescu v Romania