European Court of Human Rights Ruled in Favour of Employee Privacy

A recent ruling of The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday (which is different from the European Court of Justice, a body of the European Union), introduced a new aspect in the development of case law concerning employee privacy.

Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu, a citizen of Romania was fired after his principal learned about those private Yahoo chats that he was regularly conducting with his brother and fiancée during normal working hours.

Although the court recognised the employers’ freedom to monitor employees’ emails, it also stated, that any monitoring required advance notification. The judges urged governments to establish safeguards against employee abuse and businesses to consider using such forms of monitoring that avoid infringing on employees’ privacy. The ruling applies to all 47 member states of the Council of Europe, including Russia, Turkey and the Ukraine.

The decision outlines the parameters of employee surveillance. It will no longer be sufficient to have a general policy permitting overall monitoring. Companies will have to prepare and communicate the exact framework of why, how, and where employees may be observed and how the collected information can be used.

The chamber noted that only a few European countries, such as Austria and the U.K. have explicit regulations pertaining to the issue of workplace privacy, while most countries in the region require employers to give prior notice of monitoring to their employees.

Until now, the European Court of Human Rights has only focused on the method of collection and use of personal data by governments. This was the very first case where the court looked into the employer-employee privacy issue and relations.

Now it is questionable that in pending proceedings such as the case of an employee of the French SNCF rail company who was dismissed for having pornographic content on the hard drive of his work computer labelled ‘personal data’, what outcome can be expected.

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