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Court: Boss may read your private messages

Helena HumphreyJanuary 13, 2016

Employees in Europe should think twice before hitting the send button on private messages at work. The European Court of Human Rights says it is legal for companies to read their employees online communication.

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The ECHR rules it is legal for employers to read private messages sent at workImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Who are you texting?" If that's your boss asking, a new ruling means "sorry, it's private" no longer has a place in your work vocabulary.

In fact, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has decided your employer not only has a right to know who you're writing, but also what.

The ECHR on Tuesday ruled against a Romanian engineer who was fired in 2007 after his company discovered that he was using their internet for personal purposes during work hours.

45 pages of Bogdan Barbulescu's conversations over Yahoo Messenger with his brother and fiancée, of a highly private nature, were shown in court.

Judges at Europe's top rights court said that the engineer's bosses were within their rights when they monitored his online activities, as company policy strictly prohibited the use of messaging for personal purposes, and Barbulescu had been asked to set up the Yahoo account only to answer client queries.

Barbulescu had already lost his case in Romanian courts before he filed an appeal at the Strasbourg court. He had hoped that it would rule that his employer had breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides a right to respect for one's "private and family life, his home and his correspondence."

"Not a green light"

Instead, the judges said it was not "unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours." The judges also argued that because his employer believed it was accessing a work account, they were not in the wrong.

Nevertheless, the court also told DW that the judgment in this case is not "a blanket green light to employers to monitor their employees' private communications whilst they are at work."

One of the seven judges in the chamber disagreed with the verdict. Judge Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque detailed in court documents that Barbulescu's personal correspondence during work time was neither prolonged nor damaging to the company he was employed by. He called Barbulescu's dismissal "disproportionate."

"Big Brother" risk

Judge Pinto de Albuquerque warned that unless companies clearly stipulate their Internet usage policy, "Internet surveillance in the workplace runs the risk of being abused by employers acting as a distrustful Big Brother lurking over the shoulders of their employees, as though the latter had sold not only their labor, but also their personal lives to employers."

Rulings of the European Court of Human Rights are binding to the forty seven countries which have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes Germany. There is now a three-month window for any party to challenge the judgment.