'Excessively intrusive' | Amazon fined £27m by data watchdog over employee surveillance

Amazon fined £27m by data watchdog over employee surveillance

France’s data watchdog has fined Amazon’s French arm more than £27million over what it described as an "excessively intrusive" surveillance system set up to monitor the performance of staff.

The CNIL(Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés), France’s regulatory body overseeing data privacy, dished out the fine, equivalent to 35 million Euros, to Amazon France Logistique, which manages the behemoth’s warehouses in France.

Investigators said indicators tracking the inactivity time of employees' scanners had been put in place, and that such a system was illegal. It also said a system set up to measure the speed at which items were scanned was also "excessive".

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"More generally, the CNIL considered it was excessive to keep all the data collected by the system, as well as the resulting statistical indicators, for all employees and temporary workers, for a period of 31 days," said the CNIL.

An Amazon spokesperson said the company disagrees with CNIL's fine and reserves the right to appeal.

"Warehouse management systems are industry standard and are necessary for ensuring the safety, quality, and efficiency of operations and to track the storage of inventory and processing of packages on time and in line with customer expectations," he also said.

Workplace surveillance under the microscope

Amazon’s case may have occurred across the Channel, but the debate around workplace surveillance is taking place worldwide, and very much something for UK HR teams to be aware of.

In October 2023, research commissioned by Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) revealed that almost one in five (19%) people believe that they have been monitored by an employer. If monitoring becomes excessive, it can easily intrude into people’s private lives and undermine their privacy.

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Over two thirds (70%) of people surveyed by the ICO said they would find monitoring in the workplace intrusive and fewer than one in five (19%) people would feel comfortable taking a new job if they knew that their employer would be monitoring them.

The findings prompted the ICO to publish guidance to help employers fully comply with data protection law if they wish to monitor their workers. The watchdog also called on organisations to consider both their legal obligations and their workers’ rights before they implement any monitoring in the workplace.

What this means for HR

While this is an extreme case (and an extreme financial punishment), with Amazon reportedly monitoring employee breaks and holding data longer than required, it does prompt the question of what is and isn’t appropriate workplace monitoring. And what happens when employers cross the line.

Paul Holcroft, Managing Director at HR & employment law experts Croner, told HR Grapevine there are several considerations for employers before they start any form of employee monitoring.

“Individuals have a right of respect for their private and family, whether they are in a professional setting or not, so employers will need to ensure that employees reasonably expect that they will be monitored to not fall foul of this” he explained.

Holcroft said employers will need to ensure that any personal data that is captured through monitoring is processed in accordance with data protection legislation and that it is kept safely, securely, and only retained for as long as there is a lawful reason for doing so.

A failure to do so, he warned, could result in an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office and substantial fines, as has been the case with the French division of Amazon.

Holcroft added: “There is also an implied duty of trust and confidence owed to each employee. If monitoring of employees breaches this implied duty, then an employee could resign and bring a constructive unfair dismissal claim.

“Employers, therefore, need to carry out an impact assessment before they start any monitoring to assess all the potential risks. If an organisation wants to monitor their workforce to assess employee performance, or ensure employees are acting professionally, other less invasive methods that could achieve that aim should be considered first.

“How such monitoring may impact upon the culture of the organisation and employee morale will also need to be thought through. If, however, the decision is made to progress with employee monitoring, then employees should be given detailed information including when their information will be obtained, why, how it will be used, and who it will be disclosed to. Data protection policies should also be reviewed to ensure that they are up to date and capture details of any such monitoring to avoid breaking any GDPR measures.”

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