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Court ruling lets employers in Europe read workers’ private WhatsApp messages

A major court ruling in Europe allows companies the right to monitor their employees’ private messages on popular messaging services, such as WhatsApp.

The ruling comes courtesy of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) making it binding to countries that have consented to the European Convention on Human Rights, including those in the U.K.

The case in question concerns the use of Yahoo Messenger by a Romanian engineer, who was fired for sending personal messages to his brother and fiancée via the messaging service, reports The Independent.

After being prompted to create a work account on Yahoo’s platform by his employer, Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu was later told that the company had monitored his chats. The events transpired in 2007, when Barbulescu was presented with a 45-page transcript of his messages that included the aforementioned communications with his personal contacts.

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Despite Barbulescu’s plea that his right to privacy had been violated, the court in Strasbourg, France, ruled in favor of his employer. According to the ECtHR it was “not unreasonable that an employer would want to verify that employees were completing their professional tasks during working hours.”

Barbulescu had already lost his case in Romania’s domestic courts before taking his appeal to the ECtHR.

Although the ECtHR made it clear that Barbulescu had violated company policy, it added that employers could not indulge in unregulated monitoring of workers’ messages. The court called on companies to draw up a set of policies that state what information could be collected and how.

“This decision is significant for a number of European countries,” Michael Burd, head of employment at U.K. firm Lewis Silkin, told Bloomberg. “There’s been a very strict division between employers’ ability to look at private stuff and employers’ ability to look at company stuff and this decision will break that down.”