Can employers read private messages sent on work systems?

12 Feb 2016

Some of the media coverage of the recent human rights case involving a Romanian national who was dismissed after his employer accessed his personal messages suggests that employers have a green light to snoop on employees personal communications. The reality is a little more subtle, as we will explain.

The individual, Mr B, was dismissed in 2007 after his employer had monitored his use of a work Yahoo Messenger account for several days and found clear proof that he had used its for personal purposes, contrary to the employer’s policy that forbade all personal use. Mr B complained that this decision had been null and void because, by accessing his communications, his employer had violated his right to private correspondence under Romanian law. The Romanian courts dismissed his complaints and the case eventually ended up in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), centring on his right to respect for private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR held that the monitoring and use of the personal messages was a proportionate interference with his Article 8 rights. However, the case did not override previously established principles of European and UK law:

  • monitoring must be for a legitimate work-related purpose e.g. to monitor performance or conduct • ad hoc “fishing” for personal content is not lawful 
  • monitoring must be proportionate and balance the rights of the parties 
  • there is no automatic right to read personal communications and their content should normally remain private unless there is has some legitimate connection with e.g. an employee sending confidential information to a third party or personal account.

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