Judges at the European Court of Human Rights have backed a firm that accessed a worker's private messages sent via chat software and webmail accounts during working hours - and the ruling applies to the UK.
Bogdan Barbulescu, an engineer in Romania was sacked by his employer in 2007 after it accessed his messages on what it believed was a work Yahoo Messenger account and discovered that there were personal contacts as well as professional ones on there. The firm had banned its staff from sending personal messages at work - and, indeed, had stated that employees were not to use the internet for anything but work.
Barbulescu had previously lost the case in Romanian courts and had appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that his right to a private life had been breached, but the courts upheld the ruling, saying that the company had warned him that they could check his messages, and that in order to check his account, it was necessary for the employer to access his records.
They said that it was not "unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours", adding that "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."
Interestingly, the company also accessed messages on a second personal account - however, the judges only discussed the work account in their ruling, so it is not known whether a company would be allowed to read personal messages on a personal account. In addition, the device used to send the messages was owned by the company - nothing was said about whether the ruling would have been different had a personal device been used. Currently, UK law dictates that employers can only access personal emails in exceptional circumstances - such as to prevent criminal activity.
One of the eight judges present did not agree with the decision, arguing that a blanket ban on personal internet use was not acceptable.
UK law allows 'proportionate checks on employees' communications' - so if your company policy explicitly prohibits internet use for personal matters, then it looks like the courts will not be in your favour, should disciplinary action result from that cheeky chat with your mates.