French regulator fines Amazon $35 million over its surveillance system of warehouse workers

France’s data privacy watchdog, the CNIL, has fined Amazon’s logistics subsidiary in France €32 million, or $35 million at today’s exchange rate. The CNIL says that Amazon France Logistique has implemented a “surveillance system” that is “overly intrusive.”

In particular, the CNIL is focusing on the warehouse barcode scanner and Amazon’s data gathering practices related to the connected device. When an order is processed, an Amazon picker grabs a product, scans it with the connected scanner and puts it into a crate so that it can be shipped to the customer. Similarly, employees use the scanner to store new items in the warehouse.

“Indicators tracking the inactivity time of employees’ scanners were put in place. The CNIL ruled that it was illegal to set up a system measuring work interruptions with such accuracy, potentially requiring employees to justify every break or interruption,” the French regulator wrote.

Both the “idle time”, which indicates a period of scanner downtime of ten minutes or more, and the “latency under ten minutes”, which tracks scanner interruptions between one and ten minutes are deemed illegal by the CNIL when it comes to data processing. The CNIL is using the GDPR as the legal basis of the case.

Amazon has also implemented a “stow machine gun” indicator to prevent mistakes. It signals an error if you scan an item less than 1.25 seconds after scanning the previous item. It sounds like a way to prevent double-scanning mistakes. But that’s a GDPR issue too, according to the CNIL.

Again, it’s worth pointing out that the CNIL is listing some data processing wrongdoings. This isn’t a labor case, it’s a data processing case about illegitimate and excessive monitoring of the warehouse workers.

“The processing of these two indicators means that the employee is potentially required to justify at any time that [they] are interrupting [their] scanner, even for a very short time,” the CNIL wrote. “As implemented, the processing is considered to be excessively intrusive.”

According to the French regulator, Amazon uses this performance data to assess the overall performance of its warehouse workers on a weekly basis.

“More generally, the CNIL considered excessive 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,” the French regulator wrote.

Amazon’s answer

The company published a lengthy statement following the CNIL’s fine. “We strongly disagree with the CNIL’s conclusions, which are factually incorrect, and we might appeal the decision,” Amazon wrote.

The company’s first argument is that Amazon isn’t the only company in the logistics industry using a connected warehouse management system. In particular, the company says that it helps when it comes to load balancing between several warehouses and several teams.

“If we are facing an order peak, our systems will help us adapt the workload between teams so that we can keep processing orders in a safe and efficient manner,” Amazon wrote.

And in more details, Amazon says that the “stow machine gun” indicator has been created so that workers can inspect products before they are stored to make sure that they aren’t damaged. The company will disable that indicator in its system.

As for the “idle time” metric, Amazon will extend the threshold limit. From now on, the company will trigger this indicator after 30 minutes instead of 10 minutes.

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