February 23, 2024

French Watchdog Fines Amazon €32M for Excessive Surveillance

The French data protection watchdog, CNIL, has slapped Amazon with a hefty €32M (£27M) fine for “excessively intrusive” surveillance of its workers.

According to the agency, the eCommerce giant has resorted to surveillance measures that it found to be illegal.

Following media coverage of the working conditions at the warehouses as well as complaints by employees, the CNIL decided to launch an inquiry in 2019.

Upon investigation, the agency discovered that Amazon tracks workers in real time using data from their handheld scanners.

This enables Amazon to keep a close watch on its employees, allegedly making for a stressful work environment. Amazon, however, has refuted the findings by claiming that they are “factually incorrect”.

Workers Have to Justify Each Break, CNIL Finds

According to the CNIL, scanner data indicating the time taken by workers to perform specific tasks are documented in real time.

Such precise and intrusive surveillance led to workers potentially having to justify each break they took while at work.

The GDPR enforces stringent laws on data collection, including obtaining consent on how someone’s personal data would be used.

The investigators also found that Amazon tracks the time taken by employees to check the quality of items. Workers are mandated to put at least 1.25 seconds into checking each article.

A check that falls below this threshold, i.e., takes less than 1.25 seconds, is deemed insufficient by Amazon.

The eCommerce giant’s surveillance methods breach the General Data Protection Regulation enforced in the EU in three ways, the CNIL claims.

While error alerts for quality checks taking less time than the minimum threshold is one, the other two are for breaks lasting from 1 to 10 minutes and 10 minutes or more respectively.

The CNIL also raised questions about Amazon retaining the collected data for longer than 31 days, calling it excessive.

Amazon Responds to “Nearly Unprecedented” Fine, Disagrees with CNIL’s Findings

The €32M penalty that Amazon has been charged with is almost equivalent to 3% of the company’s revenue in 2021, which stood at €1.1 billion.

Pointing out that it’s not far below the CNIL’s maximum chargeable penalty of 4% of a company’s revenue, the agency described the fine as “nearly unprecedented”.

We strongly disagree with the CNIL’s conclusions which are factually incorrect and we reserve the right to file an appeal.Amazon spokesperson

The spokesperson then went on to point out that warehouse management systems are an industry standard. The surveillance measures are in place to ensure operational efficiency, safety, and quality. These methods help Amazon track inventory storage and process packages timely to meet customer expectations, they added.

The CNIL, however, believes that Amazon already has plenty of data that it can use to maintain quality and safety standards at its warehouses.

While Amazon uses the collected data to plan the workflow in its warehouses and train employees based on weekly evaluations, the CNIL once again found it unnecessary.

The company does not need access to the smallest details of the data provided by the scanners, the agency believes.

The fines levied on Amazon are primarily for its alleged failure to properly inform workers and external visitors of its surveillance measures. However, with Amazon retaining the right to appeal, it remains to be seen if the big tech company would have to pay the €32M fine.

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