If your business monitors staff email and internet usage, you could be breaking the law, say legal experts following a new ruling.Lynette Copland successfully sued her employer, Carmarthenshire College in Wales, after her emails and web activities were tracked over a period of 18 months.

The European Court of Human Rights awarded more than £6,000 to her, ruling that the surveillance without her knowledge "amounted to an interference with her right to a private life".

The case was taken to the court in Strasbourg by Liberty on behalf of Copland. The human rights organisation said the ruling means that employers will have to inform employees if their communications are being monitored, and that there must be a good reason for such monitoring. James Welch, Liberty's legal director, said in a statement: "Employees don't leave their personal privacy at the front door when they come to work each day. This judgment makes perfectly clear that employers who spy on their staff are infringing their privacy."

The college had argued that monitoring was to determine whether Copland was using its facilities for "personal purposes". Copland's personal communications were monitored during 1998 and 1999, before the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 in 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 enshrined the right to privacy in UK law.