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Snooping on Employee's Emails: Don't Believe the Hype

01/15/2016 03:58 pm 15:58:00 | Updated 15 January 2016

Certain parts of the UK media sometimes have trouble getting their facts right when covering "Europe". It's understandable, to a certain extent. Europe's institutions are complicated, journalists cover lots of different issues and they work to tight deadlines.

Nonetheless, this week's reporting of a judgment from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on monitoring personal communications at work has set something of a new benchmark.

Numerous outlets - primarily, but not exclusively, from the UK - have portrayed Tuesday's judgment as giving bosses across the continent a new "right" to snoop on all of their staff's personal messages sent using Facebook, Twitter, What'sApp, Gmail or any other platform.

It sounds scary, and it makes a good story, but it's not true.

First, the ECHR does not just invent new rights which instantly apply across the continent. It looks at complaints - usually brought by individuals, against their governments - on a case-by-case basis and decides if there has been a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

As explained in the ECHR press release, this particular case was brought by a Romanian man - Bogdan Bărbulescu - from Bucharest.

Bogdan worked in sales for a firm which strictly banned using company computers for personal reasons.

He was asked by his bosses to set up a Yahoo Messenger account to deal with enquiries from clients.

When challenged by his employers, Bogdan said that he only used the service for professional reasons.

His bosses then showed him a 45-page transcript of his communications, which included a number of private messages to his brother and fiancée. Bogdan was then fired for breaking company rules.

After taking his case all the way through the Romanian court system, Bogdan turned to the ECHR in Strasbourg claiming that Romania had violated his human rights.

The ECHR agreed that the case did raise certain legal questions under the human rights convention concerning the right to privacy and correspondence.

However, it also agreed with the Romanian courts that it was reasonable, in the context of disciplinary proceedings, for a company to check that employees were actually working during work hours and that computer equipment was not being used against the rules.

Given Bodgan's assurances, the company had also accessed the Yahoo Messenger account in question believing that it contained work-related material. Also, the courts in Romania had only used the transcript to prove that he had broken company regulations, rather than focusing on its content.

The ECHR said that the Romanian courts had struck a reasonable balance between the employers' interests and Bogdan's right to privacy, so Romania had not violated the human rights convention.

Bogdan and the Romanian authorities now have three months to appeal against the ruling, if they want to.

Legislation has not been altered as a result of Tuesday's judgment, either in Romania or any of the 46 other Council of Europe member states, which include the UK.

In short, not much has changed.

On the positive side, perhaps this week's misinformed media storm will help persuade workers and their bosses to clarify exactly where the boundaries lie concerning personal communications at work.

On the downside, this has been a striking example of how far and wide inaccurate scare stories can spread if journalists, and others, don't get their facts right.

Regardless of whether you change your behaviour because of this, just beware of what you read in the papers or online, especially when it comes to Europe - and whether you are at work or not.

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