Send personal messages via a work account? Your boss can legally read them

Although European ruling adds that workers should be protected from "unfettered snooping"

A European ruling (which applies to the UK) has declared that an organisation has the right to read private chat and webmail messages sent by employees from the office during working hours.

This judgement, made by the European Court of Human Rights, centres on the appeal of a Romanian engineer who had his employment terminated back in 2007 after his bosses had been through his personal (as well as work-related) messages sent via Yahoo Messenger.

Because this Messenger account was a work one – and strictly speaking, should only have been used for work correspondence in work time – and the messages were sent on a work device, the judges ruled that the company had done nothing wrong.

As the BBC reports, the judges felt an employer has a right to check on an employee's activities in work, and it was not unreasonable that a company should be able to check whether staff were engaged in work-related tasks during working hours.

Although they did add that workers must be protected against "unfettered snooping" on the other hand.

The Romanian engineer, Bogdan Barbulescu, had argued that his right to a private life had been breached by his employer, and that messages from a second personal Yahoo Messenger account had also been read.

The court only gave judgement on the work account, however, and judges noted that Barbulescu had been previously warned that the company could check up on his messages – and staff at the firm were prohibited from sending personal messages in work time.

Not popular, but legal

The judgement applies to all countries which are signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights.

At any rate, this is in line with UK law, as Lilian Edwards, professor of internet law at Strathclyde University, told the BBC: "In this case, the employers say clearly that you are not to use the internet for anything but work. Although it is not popular, it is completely legal."

She further noted: "The employer seems to have played this by the book."

However, she also stated that a blanket ban on personal internet use at work is unreasonable, as people should have the right to a private life while working, particularly as the working day gets longer…

One of the eight judges in this case – the only one to disagree with the decision – also objected to a blanket ban on personal internet use at work, calling it unacceptable.

Anyway, if you do send personal messages via a work account in work time, it's certainly worth bearing this judgement in mind.