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European Court: Firms Must Inform Staff of Private Messages Check

European Court

Employees have the right to know in advance if their work emails are monitored by employers, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said on Tuesday in a landmark privacy case.

The ruling revolved around the case of a man named Bogdan Barbulescu, who was fired a decade ago after he was caught communicating with his brother and fiancé using a messaging account intended for work.

In January last year, the Strasbourg-based ECHR court gave a ruling against Barbulescu saying that it was “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.”

On the other hand, Barbulescu argued that his rights have been violated because the company spied on his personal emails, which included topics about his health and sex life. Before he was sacked, the company presented him the printouts of his personal correspondence.

Barbulescu was a software engineer in the company, which required him to use Yahoo’s messaging platform in order to liaise with his clients easily.

On Tuesday, the Grand Chamber of the court, which is the apex body of the ECHR composed of 17 most senior judges, backed the 38-year-old Barbulescu and voted 11-6 in favor of him, stating that his former bosses and Romanian courts had “not adequately protected his rights to respect his private life and correspondence.”

The court’s website published a judgment of the case and said that it was unclear whether Barbulescu was warned that his work emails were being monitored or not, and it was also unclear whether he knew the real extent of the intrusion into his private life or not. It also indicated that the Romanian courts were not able to satisfactorily justify the monitoring measures done by the company.

In a hearing held last November, the European Trade Union Confederation argued at the Strasbourg court that a verbal warning should initially be given, while termination should only be given to “repeat offenders or serious misconducts.” The Union also emphasized the need for a clear policy governing the use of professional software and/or the internet during working hours.

In order to comply with the ECHR’s ruling, companies have the responsibility to warn their staff in advance that communications and correspondence are being monitored in the workplace.

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