Britons have been warned not to use FacebookTwitterGoogle Chat or other messaging platforms at work, after a European court handed bosses the right to spy on their staff.

In a landmark case – dubbed a ‘Snoopers’ charter’ for employers – the European Court of Human Rights said that bosses are allowed to read personal messages sent on private messaging platforms during work hours.

The judges ruled that a Romanian company was within its rights to read deeply personal messages one of its engineers, sent over Yahoo Messenger whilst he was supposed to be working.

Companies are allowed to read their staff’s private messages sent during office hours to see if they are using them for personal reasons, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled (file picture posed by models)

The man – who had been talking to his brother and his fiancée about ‘very intimate’ issues including his sexual health – was fired for breaking company rules which barred staff from making personal use of work resources.

Yesterday, legal experts warned employees in Britain that they should now work on the assumption that their employers could be monitoring all of their online activity whilst on duty.

And – in a move that will alarm millions of workers across the country – they also cautioned staff not to send personal information on smartphones, computers or iPads provided to them by their employer – even after work.

Claire Dawson, acting head of employment at the law firm Slater and Gordon, added: ‘This ruling related to personal use of company systems, so we are potentially looking at Facebook and other social media.

‘Employees should be aware that if they have a company device, their employer may give themselves the right to monitor it, including outside work hours. With anything that you can open up on a work device, employees need to be savvy that it can potentially be accessed.’

Employers will now be allowed to monitor personal messages sent on Apple’s iMessage platform, WhatsApp and picture-sharing platforms like Snapchat and Instagram (file picture posed by models)

Alex Bearman, a partner at Russell Cooke who specialises in employment law, said: ‘The safest course of action for employees is to avoid using these sorts of messaging platforms on work devices, because who knows if your bosses are watching.’

In addition to Facebook, employers will now be allowed to monitor personal messages sent on Apple’s iMessage platform, WhatsApp and picture-sharing platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

Many companies already monitor staff activity online on a routine basis, by reading work emails, logging employees’ keystrokes and tracking the web pages they visit. Often they simply want to make sure they catch any staff that are breaking the law, looking at porn, or putting the company at risk by sharing confidential commercial information.

Firms also look for signs that staff may be considering leaving – either because they are visiting job websites, or through much more subtle clues such as referring to the company as ‘they’ rather than ‘we’ in emails.

This sort of monitoring is allowed, as long as staff are warned in writing – for example in the small print of their employment contract. However, privacy campaigners fear that yesterday’s ruling will now be hijacked by unscrupulous bosses to step up their spying.

Readily available software means that they are easily able to record whatever their staff are looking at on screen, allowing them to take screen-grabs of people’s Facebook pages, and Skype conversations.

‘If you have any device that is company owned, it isn’t yours. Don’t have a private conversation on it,’ said Renate Samson, chief executive of the lobby group Big Brother Watch.

‘No employee should be in fear of being monitored by their boss. Companies must be clear with their staff about what they consider acceptable in terms of accessing the internet or using work devices.

‘The case was acknowledged by the court as not allowing a “straightforward answer”, [and] the judgment should not be seen as an opportunity for any company to assume that surveilling their staff’s use of personal communication tools is acceptable.’

The Romanian engineer at the centre of yesterday’s case asked the European court to agree on the grounds that his employer had breached his human right to right to a ‘private life…and correspondence’ – enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The unnamed man, who is in his mid-30s, had been asked to set up a Yahoo Messenger account for work purposes, but he had expected it to remain private. ‘[He] felt reassured by his employer instructing him to protect his Yahoo Messenger account by choosing his own password,’ the judgement said.

However, the company started monitoring his messages, after he denied using his work computer for personal matters. For eight days in 2007, the firm accessed both the Yahoo Messenger account it had asked him to set up, and another set up for his own use, under a different ID altogether. It is not clear how the firm got in, but it would have been easy to do so by using keystroke-logging technology to work out the password.

The judgment by the European Court of Human Rights (pictured) centred on the case of a Romanian engineer who was fired after his company discovered he was using Yahoo Messenger to chat with relatives at work

At the end, it presented him with a 45-page printout of all the personal messages he had sent – from both accounts – and made the messages available to the man’s colleagues ‘who had discussed it publicly’. According to an earlier court case in Romania, the transcripts provided the evidence the employer needed show he ‘had been blatantly wasting his time’ and dismiss him.

Yesterday, one of the seven judges in the European Court of Human Rights agreed with the man that his right to privacy had been breached, and warned that bosses should not be allowed ‘unfettered control of employees expression on the internet’ simply to ensure staff are doing their jobs properly.

However, the judge was overruled by the other six judges, who thought that the company was justified in snooping. ‘The employer…accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been

legitimate,’ they said in the ruling.

Their decision – which affects Britain and all other EU countries that have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights – was quickly seized upon by Euro-sceptics as evidence that Britain should regain its autonomy.

‘As long as Britain is in the EU, we are Treaty bound to abide by rulings from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg,’ said Diane James, UKIP MEP.

‘British people should make their own laws and have them interpreted by the British Supreme Court. Otherwise we will continue to be burdened with judgements like this made by judges that we did not appoint.’

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