Laudator: Peter Wedde

The BigBrotherAward 2013 in the “Workplace” Category goes to

Apple Retail Germany GmbH

Munich

[“Apple Retail” operates Apple Stores in Germany, making the company the central point of contact between Apple and customers. It should not be confused with Apple GmbH in Munich, who won a BigBrotherAward two years ago for taking their customers hostage with new hardware that could only be fully used if customers would submit to quasi-monopolist terms and conditions. No, this year’s winner, Apple Retail Germany GmbH, is given the award in the “Workplace” category for a particularly impudent, ideologically embellished form of video surveillance.]

According to inside sources, Apple Retail Germany has equipped its modern Apple Stores with numerous video cameras – not only in the showrooms, but also „in the manager's office, the stockroom and in the ‘genius room’ where the technicians work“. Here the employees’ activities “are continuously filmed by video cameras (CCTV) and stored to hard disk”, according to the in-house “data protection consent agreement for video surveillance”. Later in the consent agreement it is emphasized that no surveillance takes place in other areas on the premises and that the surveillance as such does not serve to monitor the employees’ work habits.

In contrast, the news magazine “Der Spiegel” reported in 2012 that an inspection by the trade supervisory board (Gewerbeaufsicht) in the Munich Apple Store revealed cameras which did not survey the stockroom, but rather the personnel. And in the online edition of the newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” from 25 Jan 2013, it was reported that an anonymous blog accused Apple of “installing cameras in social rooms, and in front of the lavatories in order to observe which employees used the toilet and how often. In addition, audio recordings were made in some of the stores.” Further it was reported that “the security center for the European Apple Stores is situated in England, where all the images from the surveillance cameras, transferred via Internet, converge”.

Video surveillance in the form described here is forbidden in Germany. Current data protection law in Germany allows video surveillance in sales rooms only, not the continuous surveillance of employees in all working areas. Employment law also prohibits the evaluation of video data in England as described here. This cannot be legalised after the fact with a consent agreement. In fact, we question in particular the legality of this manner of obtaining the agreement: to present it for signature along with the employment contract invariably contradicts the necessary voluntariness.

Against this background it seems almost cynical that in the consent document it further states “I am aware that I am not obligated to grant my consent. Refusing to accept will not have any consequences”. Perhaps the employment contract will nevertheless be concluded, but it remains unclear how, if consent is refused, Apple Stores can ensure that certain employees will be exempted from filming. Does the Apple concern have an enigmatic software to make the objectors invisible? Until such a magical software exists, continuous video recording without consent remains inadmissible.

Once the consent agreement has been signed, AppleStores confers upon itself the right to examine the recordings “if there is reason to suspect that in the Apple Store a theft, misappropriation or similar crime” has been committed. That amounts to a full power of attorney, allowing the employer in Apple Stores to evaluate the recorded material without any restriction. Such a far-reaching authorisation contradicts the case law of the Federal Labour Court (Bundesarbeitsgericht), which considers the unfounded comprehensive monitoring of employees at their workplace to be illegitimate. In view of this judgement, one may doubt whether employees can “voluntarily” grant their employers such extensive rights. Besides, a permission to store recordings for 30 days, as specified in the consent agreement, is disproportionate and therefore inadmissible according to data protection law. At least the practice in Frankfurt, according to the State of Hesse’s Data Protection Commissioner, was to store recordings for only 14 days.

Nor is customer data protection taken very seriously in the Apple Stores. Information signs about video surveillance in customer areas were placed at dog’s eye level for a long time. Only after data protection officials intervened were signs moved to waist height. They are the size of the palm of a hand, on transparent film and stuck on glass doors. Apple Retail GmbH refused to make the signs more visible as this would violate Apple’s design guidelines.

Apple Stores is not alone with its disproportionate video surveillance. The jury has further examples at hand involving other companies.

The good news in this context is that the draft of an employee data protection act, announced by the current coalition government and sharply criticised by the BigBrotherAwards jury last year, has not been realised. Video monitoring in the way practised in the Apple Stores would have been largely legalised.

In light of the scandals in recent years involving illegal video surveillance at Lidl and other firms, it surprises us that Apple Retail GmbH Germany should not have learned a lesson here. This encroachment on the personal rights of employees and customers simply does not fit the company’s sales motto, “making life better” (“Das Leben schöner machen”¹). Apple Retail’ online job portal explains explicitly to applicants that they work “for the good”. The employees are “permitted” to show their customers how they can “enrich their lives” with the products they sell. All this under the motto “regardless of what you do here, you are part of something big”. Whoever rises to the challenge of such a position will “become inspired” and “be proud”. That the path to inspiration and pride involves being permanently watched by Big Brother, remains delicately concealed in the company prose. Reference to all-encompassing video monitoring of employees and customers would of course not fit the image of a modern lifestyle company.

We are reminded of the person who inspired the the name BigBrotherAwards, George Orwell. In the novel “1984”, the ever-present “telescreen” corresponds precisely to the type of video surveillance which increasingly seems to be implemented without shame or reflection these days:

“Any sound that Winston [the novel’s main character] made above a low whisper would be picked up by it; moreover (…) he could be seen (…). There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time”²

Almost forgotten is the depressing conclusion of the novel. After his arrest and brainwashing Winston Smith observes in the last two sentences:

“He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”³

And here is the link to the Apple world and other modern businesses: There are companies which, like the Big Brother in Owell's novel, expect their employees to subjugate themselves to the company philosophy. Including the signature on a consent agreement allowing potentially total surveillance.

If the employers in Apple Stores want their employees to enjoy “a better life”, then they should simply remove the criticised cameras.

Congratulations on your BigBrotherAward, Apple Retail Germany GmbH.

_____

¹ From the German version of the “Apple Credo”, an internal document for sales staff, retranslated into English

² George Orwell, 1984, Penguin Books 1954, page 6

³ loc. cit., page 239

 

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