France fines Amazon €32M for watching staff so much they'd have to 'justify each break'

French watchdog says non to excessive monitoring of workers as retail giant plans appeal

The French privacy watchdog, National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), has fined Amazon France Logistique €32 million ($34.8 million) over a system for monitoring staff activity and performance.

The system in question measures employee performance through the use of scanners. Each employee has a scanner that enables them to document their tasks: putting an item on a shelf, taking an item off a shelf, putting an item into a box, and so on. The metrics generated can then be used to measure each employee's productivity and inactivity.

The CNIL reckons such monitoring is "excessive."

According to the watchdog, "the implementation of a system measuring interruptions of activity so precisely and leading to the employee potentially having to justify each break or interruption was illegal."

Furthermore, the CNIL also found problems with the measurement technique itself based on the principle that scanning items very quickly increased the risk of error.

All told, the CNIL found Amazon had breached GDPR's principle of data minimization – in a nutshell, collecting data from the scanners was overkill – and the lawfulness of the processing.

Three indicators processed by the company were deemed as illegal: the wonderfully named "stow machine gun" indicator – triggered when an employee scans an item too quickly; the "idle time" indicator – triggered when nothing is scanned for ten minutes or more, and a "latency time less than ten minutes" – triggered when a scanner is idle for between one and ten minutes.

There were also problems around transparency – before April 2020, temporary workers weren't informed before their data was collected, and employees weren't properly told about video surveillance systems. The video surveillance system was also not particularly secure – the access account was shared between several users, making traceability difficult.

I've got way too much cash, thinks Jeff Bezos. Hmmm, pay more tax? Pay staff more? Nah, let's just go into space


The CNIL acknowledged Amazon's need to meet its performance objectives but also said that "the retention of all this data and the resulting statistical indicators was overall disproportionate." It also stated that the monitoring and constraints imposed on employees gave the company a competitive advantage over others in the sector.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon disagreed with the CNIL's conclusions, describing them as "factually incorrect" and reserved the right to appeal.

The company did not mention "surveillance" in its response but said: "The use of warehouse management systems is standard industry practice: they are necessary to ensure safe, quality and efficient operations and to ensure inventory tracking and package processing on time and in accordance with to customer expectations."

Amazon noted the CNIL's comment on the "stow machine gun" indicator, which it said was present to ensure employees check items properly before being stored. However, it promised that the indicator would be deactivated. And "idle time"? That was there to spot a "continuous and abnormal failure" in the process. The trigger would be extended from 10 minutes to 30 minutes.

The retail behemoth has form when it comes to spying on staff according to a study by the Open Markets Institute.

The Register asked the company if similar systems were in used in other regions, including the UK, but we have yet to receive a response. ®

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