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EU Bosses Can Snoop On Your Private Messages

Theo Priestley


Employers in the European Union can read employees’ private messages sent via online chat and webmail accounts during working hours, EU judges have ruled.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said that a Romanian employer firm that read a worker’s Yahoo Messenger chats sent while he was at work was within its rights. According to the BBC, the employee, an engineer, “had hoped the court would rule that his employer had breached his right to confidential correspondence when it accessed his messages and subsequently sacked him in 2007.”

The ECHR judges said: “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.”

While there is a very fine line, the employee in this case did access employer owned equipment to transmit the private messages during work hours. The courts did not however elaborate whether in potentially using his own PC or mobile it would have made any difference. The ruling does support that employers are within rights to question usage regardless as it’s reasonable to assume an employee is performing their duties in office hours and not conducting personal affairs.

Employee monitoring is nothing new however. “Employee monitoring” is the act of monitoring employee activity and organisations engage in such activities to track performance, avoid legal liability, protect IP, and address other security concerns. Monitoring of this type does have an explicit impact on employee privacy.

The following uses of employee information are generally considered legal, but all aspects have to be explained up front and made visible to employees and not after the fact. Find needed business information when the employee is not available.

  • Protect security of proprietary information and data.
  • Prevent or investigate possible criminal activities by employees.
  • Prevent personal use of employer facilities.
  • Check for violations of company policy against sending offensive or pornographic email.
  • Investigate complaints of harassment.
  • Check for illegal software.

While the above ruling has affected the Romanian worker directly, other countries are not bound by it and can interpret the decision in their own way. Meanwhile in the UK, Former Prime Minister David Cameron pressed ahead with new powers that plan to stop people from sending any form of encrypted messages, and allowing the Government full access. Under the rather Orwellian “Draft Communications Data Bill” (nicknamed Snooper’s Charter) the legislation proposed would require ISPs and mobile providers to maintain records of each user’s internet browsing activity (including social media), email correspondence, voice calls, and mobile phone messaging services and store the records for 12 months.

Immediately under threat are services such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, Apple’s own iMessage, Facebook Messenger and other popular instant messaging tools if they don’t comply with the new bill. Currently these services encrypt messages but under the new legislation the UK Govt wants the right to access all data being transmitted.

Theo Priestley

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