European court ruling does not mean firms can snoop on your emails or WhatsApp chats

ECHR ruling doesn’t allow bosses to snoop on your WhatsApp messages

A recent headline-grabbing story jumped on by mainstream tabloids suggested that a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) gives bosses in the UK the right to spy on private messages sent from WhatsApp, Twitter, iMessage and personal email accounts.

The ruling concerned a labour dispute case brought by a Romanian engineer who was fired in 2007 for sending personal messages from a Yahoo account set up specifically for communication with business clients.

Bogdan Bărbulescu argued that his employer breached his right to privacy after the firm read personal messages sent to his brother and fiancée.

The ECHR disagreed and sided with Bărbulescu’s employer, claiming that it was “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours”, and pointing out that the man had been warned of the consequences of using work devices for personal conversations.

Reports quickly spread claiming that all personal communications sent during the daily nine-to-five are now vulnerable to the prying eyes of employers. This, according to legal experts, is untrue.

“From a UK employment perspective, the decision in Barbulescu v Romania is not anywhere near as significant as recent news reports appear to suggest,” Melanie Lane, lawyer at Olswang, told V3.

“It is already common practice in the UK for employers to review employees’ emails and messages when carrying out disciplinary investigations, and employment tribunals have generally proved willing to consider relevant evidence obtained in this way.”

Anna McCaffrey, senior associate in the employment, pensions and mobility group at legal firm Taylor Wessing, told V3 that the ruling was justified on the grounds that the claimant was using a work account and is a far cry from invasive spying.

Furthermore, snooping on personal messaging accounts such as WhatsApp and iMessage would be much “harder to justify” as reasonable or proportionate in a UK courtroom, according to McCaffrey.

“[Bărbulescu] was using a business account to send personal messages in breach of his employer’s rules, which is quite different from employers monitoring solely personal messaging accounts that have no relation to the employer or the workplace,” she said.

Adam Rose, a data protection lawyer at London-based legal firm Mishcon de Reya, told V3: “The basic rules have not changed. If the employer makes it clear to staff that when they use office equipment there is a presumption that it is for office work and not for personal use, the employer is therefore entitled to see the worker’s work.

“The recent case is not a ‘snoopers’ charter’, but it does confirm that employers can set out very clear rules that allow them to see what employees are doing with office equipment, and employees should be conscious of that. After all, they are being paid to work, not to plan their social lives.”

Rose added that employers need to be “sensitive to their workers’ needs to sort out personal affairs” and, mirroring the recommendations of the ECHR, advised that employees should be formally made aware of rules concerning personal messages sent during work hours.

“Even if a boss has the right to look at what his or her workers are up to, unless there are solid grounds for reviewing their emails and guidance has been given to the staff who are looking at them, it is best not to review [messages] unless absolutely necessary, and certainly not to have a blanket review approach,” he said.

“This case doesn’t really widen the scope of existing UK law and guidance on the subject. However, it is perhaps a salutary reminder to employees that they should check what the IT policy in their workplace says and what is expected of them, as many employees are unaware that their employer may have an entitlement to monitor their use of company IT systems.”

You can read the full ECHR ruling here:

Case of Barbulescu v. Romania

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16 January 2016 | 10:15 am – Source:


One response to “European court ruling does not mean firms can snoop on your emails or WhatsApp chats”

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