European Court Approves Firing Employees for Computer Misuse

January 26, 2016

imageThe European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that, subject to proper notice, employers can monitor computer use of their employees and terminate the employment of staff who violate computer use policies.  The Court concluded that such actions do not violate the human rights of employees.

The Court considered a case initiated by a Bulgarian software engineer.  As an employee of a software company, he had been warned that personal use of company computer and communications systems was prohibited.  He had also been warned that the company monitored those systems to identify personal use and that such personal use was basis for termination of employment.

Despite the notice provided by his employer, the employee used company-owned equipment and accounts for personal use.  That activity reportedly included personal use of “Yahoo Messenger” accounts held by the company.  Based on the continuing personal activity, the engineer’s employment was terminated.

Matsuura Blakeley BannerThe fired employee claimed that his human rights had been violated by his former employer.  His primary claim was that the surveillance conducted by the employer constituted an illegal violation of European rules regarding human rights.

The Court considered the claim but ultimately rejected it.  Emphasizing that extent to which the company had provided clear and effective notice to its employees regarding acceptable use, the extent of its monitoring activities, and the fact that misuse of computer and communications systems was a basis for termination, the Court found no human rights violation.

The Court those recognizes that organizations can control the use of their computer and communications systems and conduct surveillance of those systems as necessary to enforce their use policies, provided that clear notice is provided to all system users.  This case also illustrates that organizations can take action against system users for unauthorized activities and that such action can include termination of employment.

This decision is part of a clear trend empowering enterprises and other organizations to assert control over use of their computer and communications systems.  System operators have the legal authority to conduct active oversight of their systems, including surveillance and denial of access, provided that all authorized users are given clear notice of the terms of system use.

When managing computer and communications system operations, it is essential to provide clear notice regarding acceptable use of the system.  Such notice must include an indication that system use is monitored.  It is also important that the notice indicate that penalties associated with violations can include denial of access to the system and termination of employment.  Absent clear notice, the rights of system operators are substantially limited.