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Amazon Hit with Penalty for 'Excessive' Worker Surveillance

The penalty comes after an investigation into Amazon France Logistique.
Cover Image Source: GettyImages | David McNew  Stringer
Cover Image Source: GettyImages | David McNew Stringer

Amazon has recently been slapped with a €32 million ($34.8 million) fine by France's data protection agency, CNIL, for what it deems as "excessive" surveillance of its workers. The penalty comes after an investigation into Amazon France Logistique, the division responsible for managing warehouses, revealed a series of privacy breaches and illegal surveillance measures. The CNIL's inquiry was prompted by complaints from Amazon employees and media reports highlighting concerns about working conditions. The regulatory body identified multiple instances where Amazon's practices violated the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Europe's stringent data protection laws.

Cover Image Source: GettyImages | David Ryder  Stringer
Image Source: GettyImages | David Ryder Stringer

One major point of contention was a surveillance system that employed three alerts to monitor employee activities. The CNIL declared this system illegal, as one alert would trigger if an item was scanned too quickly, potentially increasing the likelihood of errors. Another alert would signal breaks of 10 minutes or more, and a third tracked breaks between one and 10 minutes. This level of micromanagement, according to the CNIL, was not only excessive but also in violation of privacy rights.

Furthermore, the CNIL questioned why Amazon needed to retain workers' data for a lengthy 31-day period. This extended data retention period raised concerns about the company's commitment to privacy and fueled suspicions about the necessity of such a prolonged data storage duration.

Responding to the CNIL's findings, Amazon vehemently disagreed, calling the conclusions "factually incorrect." The e-commerce giant argued that warehouse management systems, similar to the one in question, are industry-standard and crucial for ensuring safety, quality, and operational efficiency. Amazon asserted that these systems are vital for tracking inventory storage and package processing accurately, aligning with customer expectations.

Amazon Warehouse Employees Prepare For Their Busiest Time Of Year | Getty Images | Photo by Matt Cardy
Amazon Warehouse Employees Prepare For Their Busiest Time Of Year | Getty Images | Photo by Matt Cardy

This is not the first time Amazon's surveillance practices have come under scrutiny. In the UK, a similar system was revealed, with Amazon executives indicating that employees with three productivity flags on the system could potentially face termination. The UK's Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Committee raised concerns about the use of surveillance technology to set performance targets and monitor employee behavior, leading to what it described as "distrust, micromanagement, and disciplinary action" against workers.

The CNIL, however, emphasized that Amazon already had access to substantial data to maintain quality and safety in its warehouses. The watchdog criticized the company's surveillance system as "excessively intrusive" and highlighted the potential negative impact on employees, who might be forced to justify even the briefest interruptions during scanning.

Image Source: Pexels | PhotoMIX Company
Image Source: Pexels | PhotoMIX Company

In addition to the fine, Amazon was penalized for inadequate communication with workers and external visitors about surveillance practices. The CNIL also noted insufficient security measures in the company's video surveillance system.

The GMB union, representing Amazon's UK warehouse workers, responded to the ruling by stating that the company's staff faced "bruising levels of scrutiny and surveillance." This underscores the broader issue of increasing concerns over workplace surveillance, emphasizing the need for companies to strike a balance between ensuring operational efficiency and respecting the privacy and dignity of their employees. The outcome of this case could set a precedent for how tech giants navigate the fine line between monitoring productivity and safeguarding individual rights in the workplace.