Spying on Worker Emails Gets New Hurdle in EU Court Ruling

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(Bloomberg) — Prying into workers’ emails just became a bit harder following a European Court of Human Rights ruling that a company violated a Romanian man’s privacy rights by firing him after spying on his personal Yahoo! Inc. chats.

Romanian authorities hadn’t properly protected the employee’s “right to respect for his private life and correspondence,” the court’s Grand Chamber ruled Tuesday in an 11-6 vote. “They had consequently failed to strike a fair balance between the interests at stake.”

The ruling focused on the fact the Romanian courts had failed to look at whether the employee had been given prior warning that his communications may be monitored by bosses.

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A lower court in the ECHR ruled in January 2016 that it wasn’t unreasonable for companies to monitor private communications made during working hours.

The ruling highlights the issues that countries around the world have in balancing citizens’ rights and the need to protect national security interests. Privacy campaigners welcomed the decision saying it offers important protections to workers’ rights.

However, Privacy International did sound a note of caution.

The ruling “doesn’t give an absolute right to privacy to employees,” the advocacy group said in a statement.

Vague Boundaries

“As the boundaries of work and private life become even more vague, particularly with the rise of the so-called gig economy and the exploitation of the personal data of individuals working for such companies, this judgment offers some important protections to employee’s right to privacy,” said Tomaso Falchetta, Privacy International head of policy and advocacy.

Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu took his case against Romania to the human rights court in 2008, arguing that his employer’s decision to end his contract was based on a violation of his rights to respect for his private life and correspondence.

Barbulescu was working as an engineer in charge of sales from 2004 to 2007 when his employer asked him to create a Yahoo Messenger account to answer clients’ queries. In July 2007, he was informed that his chats had been monitored over several days, showing he had breached company rules by also using the service for private correspondence.

Wednesday’s ruling should remind employers not to “go beyond what is necessary for a legitimate purpose,” Helena Milner-Smith, a London-based employment lawyer with Covington & Burling, said.

“However, the Grand Chamber’s ruling will have very little practical impact in the U.K. since these steps are already widely recognized as good practice” by British employers, she said.

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