The court found that Romanian Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu had been sacked from his job after his employers read a series of private messages he had been sending using a Yahoo Messenger account he was asked to create to communicate with clients.
The case dates back to 2007 when Bărbulescu was informed by his employer that his Yahoo Messenger communications had been monitored from 5 to 13 July 2007 and that the records showed he had used the Internet for personal purposes.
4. Employers can read workers' private messages sent by chat software & webmail during working hours,- European Court of Human Rights— Alan Fisher (@AlanFisher) January 13, 2016
Barbulescu replied in writing that he had only used the service for professional purposes. He was presented with a transcript of his communication including transcripts of messages he had exchanged with his brother and his fiancee relating to personal matters such as his health and sex life.
Barbulescu brought legal action against his dismissal, arguing that "the Yahoo Messenger software was by its nature designed for personal use and that the nature of the instant messaging service had entitled him to expect that his communications would be private. Had he not expected privacy, he would have refrained from disclosing intimate information."
However, the ECHR noted in its ruling that "it is not disputed that the applicant's employer's internal regulations strictly prohibited employees from using the company's computers and resources for personal purposes." Moreover, the Court found that:
"It is not unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that the employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours."
The case went through a series of courts before being referred to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that there had been: "no violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life, the home and correspondence) of the European Convention on Human Rights." In its judgement, it said: "It follows that this complaint is manifestly ill-founded and must be rejected."
However, the ruling is likely to cause a debate on how closely people's emails and messages can be monitored — and whether they should only be able to access who the employer is communicating and not the content of that communication.
"The decision legalizes reliance on private communications to influence workplace decisions," Michael Burd from law firm Lewis Silkin told the London Daily Telegraph newspaper.
"There's been a very strict division between employers' ability to look at private stuff and employers' ability to look at company stuff and this decision will break that down. What's significant about this case is that they were allowed to use the content, not simply the fact of using Yahoo."
Ian Brownhill, a lawyer at No.5 Chambers said:
"Employers beware though, reading an employee's personal internal correspondence has implications under the Data Protection Act and depending on how you got by the password, perhaps even the criminal law."
The Chamber judgment is not final. It could be referred to the Grand Chamber of the Court. If such a request is made, a panel of five judges will consider whether the case deserves further examination. In that event, the Grand Chamber will hear the case and deliver a final judgment.