There has been much media interest in a recent case from the European Court of Human Rights concerning the right to privacy at work. It is not the case that employer’s have the right to snoop on employee’s personal emails as some coverage seemed to suggest. Clearly if an employee is using his work email address for personal matters then this could be monitored and viewed as many employers have such a policy. If an employee was using their yahoo account for example for emails the employer would not see these emails and an employee would have privacy at work. However, in the reported case it involved the use of work equipment for a sort of instant messaging type communications.
In fact the decision concerned the right to privacy under article 8 of the ECtHR, in the context of an employer’s monitoring of private messages sent by an employee through a work-related Yahoo messaging account. The employee had been dismissed for personal internet use at work, contrary to the employer’s internal rules and procedures.
As part of its investigation the employer accessed private messages sent by the employee to friends and family relating to personal matters during work time. These messages were printed by the employer and used in the disciplinary proceedings as well as in the subsequent court cases. The ECtHR held that the monitoring and use of the personal messages was a proportionate interference in his article 8 rights.
The decision does not go beyond previous existing ECtHR case law on the reasonable expectation of privacy, and nor does it override existing UK legislation, including the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which place important limitations on employers’ power to monitor their employees’ private communications. Employers should not assume from reading the media coverage that this case gives them carte blanche when it comes to such communications.