Work emails not always safe from prying eyes of employers

Employers can access staff work emails but private email accounts are far more off limit.
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Employers can access staff work emails but private email accounts are far more off limit.

Authorities in Europe have deemed it acceptable for bosses to spy on staff work emails and electronic messages, and it appears it is a similar situation in New Zealand.

British newspaper The Telegraph reported the European Court of Human Rights decided the employer of a Romanian engineer who was fired for sending personal messages on his Yahoo messenger account was not acting unreasonably.

Bogdan Mihai Barbulescu said he was made aware of the surveillance of his Yahoo account in 2007, which he was told to set up for work.

After he was fired for numerous Yahoo messages he sent to his fiance, Barbulescu argued his employer's decision to end his contract was based on a violation of his rights to private correspondence.

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The employer said it had banned all the company's staff from sending personal messages while at work, The Telegraph reported.

The judges said it was reasonable for the employer to check whether staff were doing their work.

Duncan Cotterill employment lawyer Jessie Lapthorne said the outcome of any similar cases in New Zealand would be heavily fact-dependent.

In the European Union case, the worker had been told to set up the Yahoo account for work purposes so that may be a different situation to if an employer accessed a non-work, personal email.

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"In New Zealand, employers with suspicions that employees are sending an excessive amount of personal emails while they should be working are of course entitled to investigate but that investigation would not normally permit them to covertly access a personal email account," Lapthorne said.

A Privacy Commission case from 2012 involved an employer using information collected from keystroke logging to access a worker's personal web-based email account and copy emails.

The privacy commissioner ruled that this was a breach of privacy and said there was a high expectation of privacy with a person's private email account.

"It would require exceptional circumstances to justify an employer directly accessing it," the commissioner said.

Lapthorne said employers should have a clear, updated email and internet use policy and apply those policies consistently.

They should make clear to staff whether their email accounts can be accessed by the employer, she said.

"Generally, we wouldn't recommend that employers allow employees to use personal emails for work purposes as this can muddy the waters as to what is private and what isn't."

 - Stuff

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