The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that a company which had read an employee’s messages sent through Yahoo Messenger while he was at work was within its rights to do so.
The employer company argued that the man, a Romanian Engineer, used and sent message of a personal nature through Yahoo Messenger during work hours. He created a Yahoo Messenger account, at the employer’s request, for the purpose of responding to clients’ enquiries and therefore the company argued it was entitled to check if he was completing his work. The company advised the man that it had reviewed records and was aware that the man was using the messenger service for personal purposes contrary to its policies and rules about same.
The ECHR agreed with the company and rejected arguments made by the employee that the employer had breached his right to confidential correspondence when it accessed his messages before dismissing him for this breach. The court ruled that it was not “unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours“ and the court added “The employer acted within its disciplinary powers since, as the domestic courts found, 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. The court sees no reason to question these findings.”
This ruling affects all EU countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. However, it is important to note that the court advised that unregulated prying on employees would not be acceptable and advised that policies should be drawn up by employers that clearly state what information they could collect and how.
Many employers in Ireland already have workplace policies on internet use and write them into contracts. The Data Protection Commissioner has taken the view that people can be expected to have “a certain degree of privacy in their communications on employers’ equipment, unless it’s explicitly ruled out”. Any limitation on a right to privacy should be reasonable and for a legitimate aim and purpose.
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