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Companies Spying on Employee Accounts Need to Come Clean, European Court Rules

Opened laptop and other office stuff on wooden table

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that companies must inform their employees if their work email accounts are being monitored.

In a ruling that’s a clear success for privacy rights protectors, the European Court of Human Rights has decided that if companies plan to spy on their employees’ email accounts, then those same employees need to be informed beforehand. Furthermore, if checks are done, they must not unduly infringe the workers’ privacy.

The decision comes after the case of a Romanian man, Bogdan Barbulescu, who was fired a decade ago for using a work messaging account to communicate with his family. Obviously, there would have been no way for the company to know this, had they not been spying on his conversations.

Email privacy is something that people have been striving for, something that they demand and expect, even if we’re talking about a company email address or a corporate messaging account. Sometimes, it’s just easier to use the same work address for personal correspondence, rather than switch between multiple accounts. On the other hand, companies demand the right to monitor their employees while at work, even if that means spying on them.

Romanian courts had sided with the employer in Barbulescu’s case, but the court in Strasbourg ruled by 11-6 that this decision has failed to protect the employee’s right to private life and correspondence.

The damning evidence the employer’s lawyers brought forward was printouts of Barbulescu’s private messages sent to his brother and fiance over Yahoo Messenger, even after he’d previously told the company that he’d only used the service for professional purposes. If you’ve ever used Yahoo Messenger before, you’ll know using it just for work is practically impossible.

The European court decided that Barbulescu had not been properly informed about the extent of the monitoring the company was doing, or that they could see the messages he was sending. Furthermore, the company also seems to have failed in bringing to the table legitimate reasons for monitoring employees’ communications.

In the future, if companies want to monitor their employees, they must inform them. Furthermore, they must make sure not to infringe on their privacy.

This is great news for anyone who cares about their privacy and keeping their cyber secrets away from prying eyes. Over the years, we’ve all come to associate messaging systems, such as email accounts, or instant messaging apps, to privacy. Whether those cyber secrets we strive to keep hidden are shared with close friends over email, stored in a draft, or shared anonymously somewhere, we expect and demand our privacy be protected. The assumption that work emails fall under the same category is not outlandish.

Thankfully, from now on we’ll at least know if companies plan to spy on us, so we can keep any secrets we may have off the business accounts, whether they’re personal stuff or just office gossip.

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