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Excessive workplace surveillance in Amazon warehouse, says France’s regulatory watchdog

The regulatory body found the company monitored employee activity and speed using employee scanners, and that the retention of this surveillance data was also “excessive.”

What’s the news: France’s regulatory body, the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), found the Amazon France Logistique to have breached several provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by carrying out workplace surveillance in its warehouses.

Why it matters: Labour issues in big tech industries have been rising in recent years. Recurrent grievances have been raised by aggregator platform workers like Urban Company, Uber, Ola, Swiggy, Zomato, etc. However, specific to Amazon, there has been much coverage of the company’s abhorrent working conditions. Forbes in May 2023 reported how delivery drivers sued Amazon for being forced to pee in bottles to avoid bathroom breaks which were being tracked. The Guardian in March 2023 reported that the US’s top workplace safety regulator had demanded an explanation from Amazon about the high injury rates for its warehouse workers. Now, the French watchdog has discovered an intrusive workplace surveillance system, bringing the company under further flak.

What did CNIL find about Amazon France’s workplace conditions?

The CNIL carried out several investigations based on news reports and complaints from employees. Naming the company’s system for monitoring employee activity and performance to be “excessive,” the watchdog listed the following findings in a press release:

  • Indicators tracking the inactivity time of employees’ scanners: The CNIL’s restricted committee (the body responsible for issuing sanctions) found that Amazon “uses indicators on employee activity and performance, collected with the help of scanners, to manage stocks and orders in its warehouses in real time.” It found three indicators to be illegal under the GDPR’s lawful processing provision:
    • “Stow Machine Gun” indicator – signals an error when an employee scans an item “too quickly” i.e., in less than 1.25 seconds
    • “Idle time” indicator – signals when a scanner is inactive for 10 minutes or more
    • “Latency under ten minutes” indicator – signals periods of scanner interruption between one and ten minutes
  • Failure to comply with data minimization: The restricted committee found that the company collected employee activity and performance data and indicators using the scanners to plan work in its warehouses, assess employees each week and train them.

The CNIL found it “excessive” and “disproportionate” 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.”

  • No transparency for employee or visitor: In the case of employees, the restricted committee found that “until April 2020, temporary workers for the company were not properly informed, as the company did not ensure that the privacy policy had been given to them before their personal data was collected using the scanners.”

In the case of visitors, people were also not informed about the video surveillance systems which was found to violate the GDPR’s provision under which companies are obligated to provide information and transparency.

  • Weak protections for surveillance data: The committee found that the access to the video surveillance software was not sufficiently secure. The access password was not strong enough and the access account was shared between several users. “This accumulation of security defects makes it more difficult to trace access to video images and to identify each person who has carried out actions on the software,” said the CNIL.

In light of these findings, the restricted committee imposed a fine of €32 million on Amazon France Logistique.

Workplace surveillance raises concern of function creep: In 2023, Professor Anupam Guha from the Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay, explained how workplace surveillance can lead to ‘function creep’ where information collected for one purpose is then used for other purposes as well. This means that rather than increasing productivity, surveillance can have a chilling effect on employees that affects their agency.

Even stakeholders attending MediaNama’s ‘Reworking the Data Protection Bill’ event talked about how intransparent practices that collected vast data in an employer-employee relationship could lead to a power asymmetry. You can read their comments here.

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Written By

I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

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