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European Court of Human Rights ruling means employers can read workers' private messages

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By Tony Connelly, Sports Marketing Reporter

January 14, 2016 | 3 min read

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has set a precedent for social media privacy in a ruling that states employers are legally allowed to read workers’ private messages sent via WhatsApp, Facebook and other chat software.

ECHR private message ruling

ECHR private message ruling

Judges sitting in the ECHR handed down their decision stating that a firm that read a worker's Yahoo Messenger chats sent while he was at work was within its rights.

The ruling said the employee had breached the company's regulations which stated no private messages should be sent at work and that his employer had a right to check on his work.

The decision is significant in that in now sets a precedent for all other nations that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case involved a Romanian engineer worker, named Bogdan Barbulescu, who argued that his employer had breached his right to confidential correspondence when it accessed his messages in 2007. The man was found to be using Yahoo Messenger for personal contacts, as well as professional ones and was later sacked for professional negligence.

After losing his case in Romania's domestic courts Barbulescu appealed to the ECHR where Judges dismissed the his request saying that it was not "unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours".

The 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."

A key question remains in the ruling however as the device used to send the messages was owned by the employer, and the judges did not elaborate on the ruling would apply to a personal device.

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