Safeguarding Privacy: Navigating the Ethical Landscape of Workplace Surveillance


In the age of advancing technology and heightened concerns for privacy, the monitoring of employees has become a contentious issue. Recent enforcement actions in the UK and France have brought this topic to the forefront, raising important questions about the ethical boundaries of surveillance in the workplace.

In the UK, Serco, a major service provider, found itself under scrutiny from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for its use of facial recognition technology (FRT) and fingerprint scanning to monitor employee attendance. The ICO’s investigation revealed that employees were not provided with alternatives to biometric scanning for clocking in and out of work, leading to concerns about coercion and the unlawful processing of biometric data. While no fine was imposed, Serco was ordered to cease the use of FRT and fingerprint scanning and to destroy all unlawfully collected data.

Across the channel in France, Amazon faced similar challenges regarding its “excessive” monitoring practices in warehouses. The French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) fined the tech giant €32 million for various breaches of the EU GDPR, including the disproportionate use of individual scanners to monitor employee productivity and the lack of transparency regarding video surveillance. The CNIL highlighted the detrimental impact on employee morale caused by extensive monitoring, emphasising the importance of balancing surveillance with respect for individual rights.

Key Lessons

These enforcement actions underscore the need for organisations to approach employee monitoring with caution and accountability. While monitoring can serve legitimate purposes such as security and productivity enhancements, it must be conducted in a manner that respects privacy and upholds fundamental rights.

Business Considerations:

  1. Conducting a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) to assess the risks associated with monitoring activities.
  2. Identifying a valid lawful basis for monitoring employees, rather than assuming that “legitimate interests” suffice.
  3. Ensuring that monitoring is necessary and proportionate, considering less intrusive alternatives.
  4. Establishing clear boundaries for the extent of monitoring and communicating these to employees.

It is crucial for organisations to strike a balance between the legitimate interests of the business and the rights of employees. Transparency, accountability, and respect for privacy are essential principles that should guide the implementation of employee monitoring programs.

While these enforcement actions serve as a reminder of the consequences of non-compliance, they also present an opportunity for organisations to reassess their monitoring practices and ensure they align with ethical and legal standards. By prioritising privacy and ethical considerations, businesses can create a workplace environment that fosters trust and respect among employees while achieving their operational objectives.