The European Court of Human Rights has ruled by a majority of 6:1, that employers can read employees’ private emails sent during working hours.
On 13 July 2007, an employer informed their employee that his communications had been monitored for approximately one-week before said notification and that such monitoring had indicated that he had used the internet for personal purposes, contrary to company policy. The employee stated that he had only used the Yahoo Messenger for professional purposes. Subsequently, the employer produced a lengthy transcript of the alleged personal communications and terminated the employee’s contract on 1 August 2007. The employee challenged this in the Bucharest County Court, stating that by accessing his communications, the employer had breached his right to correspondence, safeguarded by the Romanian Constitution and Criminal Code. The County Court dismissed his claim. He appealed under Article 8 of the Convention, more specifically, private life and correspondence. The Bucharest Court of Appeal dismissed this claim and the employee brought proceedings in the ECtHR.
In the ECtHR, the Court noted that “the employer acted within its disciplinary powers since… it had accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been legitimate“. Therefore, the Court found that it was “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours“.
It is unclear how this would apply to employees that use messaging services such as Facebook and Twitter during working hours because it is pertinent to the facts of the case that the Yahoo Account was set-up under the direction of the company for professional purposes. Moreover, not all companies prohibit the use of the internet for personal use. Finally, it should be noted that UK courts must take into account the ECtHR’s decisions but are not bound by them.