Court: Employer Right to Monitor Computer Use Has Limits

John Lister's picture

A European court says an employee shouldn't have been fired for sending private messages while at work. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) overturned a lower court decision and said the employee's right to privacy had been violated.

However, the court said the verdict was largely about the specifics of the case and that it didn't constitute an absolute ban on monitoring staff computer use, or create a right to private Internet access while at work.

The case involves Bogan Mihai Barbalescu, a Romanian man fired in 2007 after using Yahoo Messenger at work to send personal and intimate messages to his brother and fiancée. His employer became aware of the personal use after monitoring employee use of the work computers. (Source:

Right to Privacy at Heart of Case

Barbalescu took the case through his domestic court system. The Romanian courts ruled that the employer had the right both to monitor the computer use and to fire him. He then took the case to the ECHR, arguing that Romania's courts had not taken into account an article in the European Convention on Human Rights that states "everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence."

A panel of ECHR judges rejected Barbalescu's argument by a 6-1 margin. He then asked for the case to go before the court's Grand Chamber. Here, 17 judges review a case and make a final decision with no further grounds for appeal on either side.

No Hard and Fast Rules

The Grand Chamber ruled in Barbalescu's favor. It said the key to its decisions was that the Romanian courts hadn't done enough to check whether the employer had made Barbalescu fully aware that it would be monitoring his computer use while at work. It also said the Romanian courts didn't fully explore whether the employer could have found a way to check if he was misusing the work computer but without accessing the content of the private messages.

The ruling doesn't set an absolute precedent of banning European companies from employee monitoring or firing staff for unauthorized use. Instead, it says national laws should be balanced to take account of the way employers monitor computer use, how intrusive the monitoring is, and how aware the employee is of both the monitoring and the consequences of any misuse. (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Should employers have the right to monitor computer use among employees while at work? Is there a workable balance of showing an employee has sent personal messages without revealing the full content of those messages? Should employers be clearer about what use is acceptable and how this policy is enforced?

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Dennis Faas's picture

As a general rule of thumb, you should not use the company's computer for personal messaging especially if you don't want it monitored.

These days just about anything can be tracked - that's because most everything done on a corporate network is routed through a server (mostly Windows Server).

In 2007 smart phones were not as widely used compared to today - especially for personal messaging. Even so, smartphones sometimes connect to corporate networks to save on cellular bandwidth costs. Unless the smartphone app being used uses encryption to encrypt its messages, the messages could be intercepted by the company. The same goes for email!

matt_2058's picture

I realize this may seem unreasonable in today's environment, but I think the employer should prevail. Do I have the right to just take the company car to run my personal errands? Of course not! Too many years I dealt with employees using the work computer for personal use. Personal emails going to/from work accounts. Chain emails with links to download virus and malware crap. Fantasy football, along with other sports. Too much system maintenance/monitoring and wasted man-hours by the violators. Not to mention the scarce email that violated discrimination policy and ended up getting forwarded to unintended recipients. Big trouble with no good explanation that could have been avoided by keeping it work related.

guitardogg's picture

Having been in IT since before email (gasp), I've seen it all, and I have to say that like most things, if people would just be smart and prudent, a little personal use should be okay. That being said, my experience has shown that people generally aren't smart or prudent, so you need to decide what you are going to allow, and then lock down everything else. There are a myriad of solutions out there for controlling end user behavior. A lot of it is built into Windows already. You don't want someone in, lock the door!