Employer breached worker's privacy by reading private messages sent through work account

European court rules firms must tell employees of email checks

The ECHR's Grand Chamber changed a previous decision of the same court from January 2016, which had found no violations of the Human Rights Convention in this case.

Employees should assume that their work email is being monitored and is not private, according to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. But the most recent ruling by the higher chamber is not in agreement, pointing out that Bărbulescu "had not been informed in advance of the extent and nature of his employer's monitoring, or the possibility that the employer might have access to the actual contents of his messages".

The court concluded that the national authorities had not adequately protected Mr Bărbulescu's right to respect for his private life and correspondence. The court said Mr Barbulescu should have been told in advance that messages on the account were being recorded.

In January the ECHR ruled against his claim, as did a Romanian court, but today's decision can not be overturned.

But the Grand Chamber of the court, the apex body comprising 17 judges, agreed to reexamine the case at Barbulescu's request and its final verdict today can not be appealed.

Privacy of emails is now a very delicate issue as more people are using work email addresses to make personal correspondence, even as the employer demands to have the right to monitor the email and usage of computers to ensure staff uses the emails appropriately.

"To qualify as prior notice, the warning from the employer must be given before the monitoring activities are initiated, especially where they also entail accessing the contents of employees' communications", the Grand Chamber said. The judgment acknowledged that employers had legitimate reasons for monitoring employees' accounts and gave guidance to companies emphasising that it had to be proportionate to achieve the aim. Judges urged European governments to implement safeguards against abuse and said businesses should consider using forms of monitoring that avoid infringing on privacy.

For Guus Heerma van Voss, Professor of Labor Law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, the ruling is significant from the point of view that it creates "a bottom line" in terms of workers' privacy.

"In some cases, employers may wish to engage in enhanced monitoring of employees' personal communications if, for example, they believe that it is affecting performance or productivity".

Experts also say that companies should also have a clear policy governing the use of professional software and the internet during work hours.

A nine-year legal battle over whether a company was right to fire an employee who carried out "a small harmless private conversation" on a work social media ended at the European Court of Human Rights today.

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