Amazon Fined for Employee Surveillance and Illegal Data Collection

By: Georgia | Published: Jan 27, 2024

Amazon’s French warehouse management business, Amazon France Logistique, was fined €32 million ($34.8 million) by France’s privacy watchdog, CNIL.

The fine, imposed in late December, was for implementing an “excessively intrusive” system to monitor staff performance.

Monitoring Methods and CNIL's Concerns

The Wall Street Journal reveals the CNIL identified that Amazon was using data from scanners to assess employee productivity and downtime, which included tracking periods of inactivity exceeding 10 minutes.

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A wide-angle view of a vast warehouse interior with tall metal shelving units stacked with pallets wrapped in plastic. The shelves are filled with various boxes and items, organized in rows extending into the distance

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The authority criticized the system for pressuring staff to justify each break or interruption, deeming it excessive and potentially harmful to employee well-being.

Amazon’s Response to the Allegations

Le Monde reports that Amazon expressed strong disagreement with the CNIL’s findings, stating, “We strongly disagree with the CNIL’s conclusions, which are factually incorrect.”

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The Amazon company logo, featuring a black lowercase "amazon" text with a curved orange arrow pointing from the 'a' to the 'z', displayed prominently on the side of a light-colored warehouse wall

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The company defended its warehouse management systems as common industry practice, emphasizing their role in ensuring safety, efficiency, and timely processing of packages, aligning with customer expectations.

Violation of GDPR and Insufficient Information to Employees

The CNIL highlighted that Amazon had not properly informed employees and visitors about the video surveillance, constituting a breach of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as per information from CNBC.

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A warehouse worker wearing a high-visibility orange vest and a cap is lifting a box from a densely packed shelf of Amazon packages. The boxes feature the recognizable Amazon smile logo

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This regulation is a foundation of data privacy and security law within the EU, and adherence to its guidelines is mandatory for operating entities.

Amazon’s Modifications to Its System

In response to the CNIL’s concerns, Amazon stated it had deactivated the functionality that detects when a package is processed too quickly.

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A black Amazon Prime delivery truck adorned with the company's blue and white logo is driving through an urban intersection

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Additionally, the threshold for inactivity warnings was extended to 30 minutes from the previous 10 minutes, indicating a shift in their approach to monitoring workforce productivity, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Basis of the CNIL’s Decision to Fine Amazon

The Wall Street Journal explains that the CNIL’s decision was based on inspections conducted following press reports about certain practices at Amazon’s warehouses.

Overhead view of the busy interior of an Amazon fulfillment center. The scene is filled with workers stationed at various conveyor belts and workstations, surrounded by yellow storage bins and brown packages of different sizes

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The regulator also considered several complaints from employees, which contributed to their comprehensive assessment and subsequent ruling against Amazon’s surveillance methods.

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The Financial Impact of the Fine on Amazon

The fine levied against Amazon France Logistique is substantial, amounting to about 3% of the company’s turnover, per information from Le Monde.

Close-up view of a smartphone, tilted to the side, displaying the Amazon logo on its screen. The logo consists of the word "amazon" in lowercase black font with a yellow-orange arrow curving from the 'a' to the 'z’

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This financial penalty illustrates the seriousness with which CNIL views breaches of GDPR and the importance of maintaining privacy standards in workplace environments.

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Employees Under Scrutiny and Pressure

The CNIL’s findings revealed that Amazon’s employees were under constant surveillance, with their every action, including breaks, being meticulously recorded and scrutinized, Le Monde reported.

A worker in a reflective orange vest and safety gloves is pulling a pallet jack loaded with yellow plastic bins. He is walking through a large warehouse with tall shelves filled with various boxed goods

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This level of monitoring created an environment where employees felt pressured to continuously justify their actions.

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Deepening Worries Over Employee Privacy

According to Le Monde, the level of surveillance at Amazon France Logistique extended to monitoring the time between employees’ entry into the warehouse and the commencement of their work. In addition to this, it was also revealed that employees were not adequately informed about the surveillance measures and that data was retained for 31 days.

A delivery person wearing a blue t-shirt and beige cargo shorts, is seen from behind, loading Amazon packages into the back of a white delivery van parked on a city street. The van's rear doors are open, revealing a stack of packages with the Amazon smile logo

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Scanners even tracked the handling of packages and parcels “right up to the second,” according to the CNIL statement. Additionally, a method termed the “stow machine gun” was used to note if an article was scanned “too fast” or in less than 1.25 seconds

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Safety and Efficiency vs. Privacy Concerns

Amazon’s defense of its practices hinges on the argument that such surveillance is necessary for safety and efficiency.

An individual with short hair is reaching for a book on a high shelf, standing beside a blue cart filled with assorted items. The setting is an Amazon warehouse with tall, densely packed shelves filled with yellow-labeled books and materials

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CNBC reveals that the company stated, “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.”

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Amazon’s Potential Appeal

Amazon has reserved the right to appeal the decision, with a two-month window to do so, Le Monde explains.

A well-manicured landscape surrounds a ground-mounted sign displaying the Amazon logo at address 905. The sign features black lowercase letters spelling "amazon" with a swooping orange arrow underneath, set against a clean white background

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This period will be critical for the company to decide whether to challenge CNIL’s ruling or to adjust its practices further to comply with GDPR standards.

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Widespread Impact and Ongoing Scrutiny

The CNIL’s decision to fine Amazon France Logistique has far-reaching implications, affecting several thousand employees.

Workers in high-visibility vests are sorting packages on conveyor belts within a large distribution center. The facility is lined with rows of blue metal carts filled with parcels. Overhead conveyors and organized workstations are visible

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Le Monde reports that the probe, initiated by the CNIL in 2019, was in response to media articles and complaints by workers, demonstrating the need for ongoing scrutiny and regulation in corporate surveillance practices. The outcome of this case could set a vital precedent for protecting employee privacy in the digital age.

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