Employees in Europe need to be careful about who they communicate with online during working hours, using the company's computer. Under a new ruling, their managers now seem to be allowed to monitor private communications.
The European Court of Human Rights has decided that such monitoring is not incompatible with a right to a private life or the right to confidential correspondence.
Against a background of rising privacy concerns throughout Europe and the US, this ruling can be used as a reference point in future cases involving employees and their rights in the digital world while at work.
The ruling from Europe's top rights court comes in a case involving a Romanian engineer fired in 2007 after his company found out he was using Yahoo Messenger to chat with his brother and girlfriend during working hours, on his business computer. The Yahoo Messenger account was created at the request of the company, with the purpose of responding to clients' enquiries.
The office's policy prohibited the use of company resources for personal purposes.The employer not only monitored time he had spent chatting. It also had "transcripts of messages [that the engineer] had exchanged with his brother and his fiancée relating to personal matters such as his health and sex life", according to the document posted online by the European Court of Human Rights.
After showing the man the transcript, the company decided to fire him "for breach of the company's internal regulations that prohibited the use of company resources for personal purposes", the court document reads.
The engineer took the company to court in his native country, Romania, on the grounds of violation of his rights to a private life and correspondence. He lost and decided to pursue the matter further in the European Court of Human Rights.
However, the judges in Strasbourg agreed with the decision taken by their Romanian counterpart. They said they did not find it "unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours".
The European court also said that the company had accessed the engineer's account "in the belief that it contained client-related communications".
Moreover, there was "no violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life, the home and correspondence) of the European Convention on Human Rights".