The ruling from the European Court of Human Rights found nothing wrong with the employer of a 27-year-old Romanian checking his Yahoo messages.
They found 45 pages of personal details he sent to his fiancée and his brother over just eight days, including about his health and sex life.
Bogdan Barbulescu worked as an engineer in charge of sales for the company in the country’s capital, Bucharest.
When he took up the job in 2004, his employer asked him to set up Yahoo Messenger on his work computer, so he could respond to clients. Almost three years later, however, his employer told him they had monitored the account for a week and he had been using it for personal messages.
When he denied it, they presented him with the 45-page transcript. It included five short messages to his fiancée sent in one day from his personal Yahoo Messenger account that did not include intimate details, the Strasbourg-based court heard.
Mr Barbulescu threatened to sue his employer for breaching his privacy, but he was fired two weeks later for breaching the company’s regulations that “strictly forbid” employees using computers, telephones, and other equipment for personal use.
The salesman sued the company in the Romanian courts for breaching his constitutional rights to privacy, but he lost when the court said he had known the employer’s rules.
Another employee had been fired for using the internet, the phone, and photocopiers for personal reasons just a short time before, so he must have known this was forbidden, the Romanian Court said.
When he denied using the Yahoo Messenger account for personal communications, his employer had no way of checking other than looking at the messages, the court found.
They added that the employer also had a right to monitor workers’ use of the internet to make sure they were not engaged in illegal activities in the company’s name or revealing its commercial secrets.
Mr Barbulescu appealed the ruling, but the higher court ruled against him, again finding that the employer’s action had been reasonable and in line with EU legislation.
He brought his case to the European Court of Human Rights, but they agreed with the Romanian courts, saying that the employer monitoring his messages was reasonable, in the circumstances.
However, one of the six judges disagreed, saying “workers do not abandon their right to privacy and data protection every morning at the doors of the workplace”.
The man’s right to privacy is binding on private, as well as public, persons, and the local courts and the European Court did not recognise this, said the dissenting judge.