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Court Ruling Removes Privacy For Staff Internet Activity

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Employers are now allowed to access and view all staff internet activity on their pub’s computer – and interrogate them about it!

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that private messages sent by staff on company software and web accounts during working hours can be read by the respective employer.

ECHR rulings are binding to all countries who have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, meaning this decision will have repercussions in the UK.

Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu was an engineer “charged with selling heating equipment”, the judgement says. He created an account to answer client’s queries. On this account he also messaged his fiancé and brother. In 2007, he was informed that his interactions were being watched, and was presented with a 45 page transcript. He was dismissed for breaching company rules.

The Strasbourg court said: “[It is] not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.” Barbulescu’s claim that his privacy was breached was dismissed.

Managing Director of Crossland Employment Solicitors, explains the case: “In the case of Barbulescu, the employer had banned employees from using a Yahoo account to send personal messages and Barbulescu had told them he only used it for work purposes. Therefore the employer had accessed the account assuming it was being used for professional purposes only.”

However, there were two accounts – one was a personal one and one was a professional one – and they read both. The ECHR said that accessing the Yahoo account was not a breach of the employee’s right to a personal life because Barbulescu had no reasonable expectation of privacy. They also said that as Barbulescu had confirmed he only used it for work purposes and the employer was entitled to assume that, in light of their rules and this assurance, that the Yahoo account was being used for business purposes only and to ensure that their business was being properly conducted. If they had not had this rule, then the decision may well have been different.

One of the eight ECHR judges in this case disagreed with the decision. They also said that a blanket ban on employees using the internet for personal purposes whilst at work was unacceptable. He said that all rules should be carefully spelt out to employees and they should specifically sign up to them.

[pullquote align=”left or right”]”Employers should already have carefully worded email and internet policies that set out what is and is not acceptable in the workplace …”[/pullquote]

Sunderland also offered the following advice: “Employers should already have carefully worded email and internet policies that set out what is and is not acceptable in the workplace and in what circumstances the employer can access information on an employee’s computer. An employer must retain the right to look at anything on the employee’s computer to ensure that the employee is complying with the law and with their contractual obligations, and also make it clear to employees that anything done on a work computer is open to scrutiny.” As well as human rights arguments, an employer may also breach data protection laws by accessing private emails on a work computer, although there are exemptions.

“Although a blanket ban on internet access is quite lawful in the UK, as the law stands, a much more proportionate response is to say to employees that they can access the internet during breaks and their lunch hour (subject of course to certain categories of sites being completely out-of-bounds such as pornography). However, this will make it much more difficult for an employer to use the same sorts of arguments as in this case, if they know that accounts are purely personal” she continued.

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