ECtHR rules that employers can snoop on messaging apps

13 Jan 2016

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled in favour of employers to allow them to monitor messaging apps used in a work capacity to ensure employees aren’t using them for personal use.

Messaging apps like Slack have become commonplace in modern offices and work environments as a means of keeping in touch with other employees, as well as conversing with clients, but based off this new ruling anyone who thinks that it can be used as a means of contacting your significant other about your dinner plans can think again.

The case that has led to this judgment is almost 10 years in the making, with it following the dismissal of Romanian man Mihai Barbulescu in 2008, with Barbulescu claiming he was wrongly dismissed after using Yahoo Messenger in his workplace to contact his friends and fiancée through a work account.

As it turns out, Barbulescu’s company had been monitoring his chats and, following the discovery of these private communications, ordered his dismissal for wasting company time, with the man claiming the action of monitoring his communications was an invasion of his privacy.

In the years since the case was first brought to court, interest in the eventual outcome has been high due to the potential repercussions, whereby it would be considered legal and ethical for employers to monitor messaging apps if they are registered with them.

‘Limited in scope and proportionate’

And now, according to Bloomberg, the ECtHR has ruled in favour of the employer, with the Strasbourg-based court ruling that: “It is not unreasonable for an employer to want to verify that the employees are completing their professional tasks during working hours.”

The court was originally presented with a 45-page transcript of the man’s conversations, showing how the company had monitored at least a week’s worth of correspondence between him and people he knew, which, the court ruled, was reasonable.

“The employer’s monitoring was limited in scope and proportionate,” the court said, adding further criticism of the Romanian man’s case for not having “convincingly explained why he had used the Yahoo messenger account for personal purposes. There is nothing to indicate that the domestic authorities failed to strike a fair balance.”

Speaking to Bloomberg, a lawyer with CMS DeBacker in Brussels, Tom De Cordier, said he hopes this ruling won’t start a worrying precedent among employers: “Employers should be careful not to draw too general conclusions from this decision.

“Much of the court’s decision seems to be based on the fact that the employee had claimed that the relevant communications were of a professional nature.”

Man using phone at work image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic