Ikea France on trial for spying on staff and customers

7. April 2021

Ikea’s French subsidiary and several of its former executives stood trial on Monday, March 22nd, after being sued by former employees on charges of violating privacy rights by surveilling the plaintiffs, job applicants and customers.

Trade unions reported the furniture and household goods company to French authorities in 2012, accusing it of fraudulently collecting personal data and disclosing it without authorization. The subsequent criminal investigation uncovered an extensive espionage system. According to French prosecutors, the company hired a surveillance company, private investigators and even a former military operative to illegally obtain confidential information about its existing and prospective employees as well as customers. The files received contained, inter alia, criminal records and bank statements. The system has been used for years, possibly even over a decade, to identify individuals who were particularly suspicious or working against the company.

After the case caused outrage in 2012, Ikea’s main parent company fired several executives at the French branch, including the former general manager. But the extensive activity in France has again raised questions about data breaches by the company.

At Monday’s trial an employee accused the company of abuse since it had wrongly suspected him of being a bank robber because its investigative system had found prior convictions of a bank robber with the same name. Others claimed the retailer had browsed through employees’ criminal records and used unauthorized data to reveal those driving expensive cars despite low incomes or unemployment benefits. Even an assistant director who had taken a year of medical leave to recover from hepatitis C was monitored to investigate whether she had faked the severity of her illness. Illicit background checks on hundreds of job applicants were also conducted. Moreover, the system was used to track down customers seeking refunds for mismanaged orders.

One of the defendants, the former head of Ikea France’s risk management department, has testified at the hearing that EUR 530.000 to 630.000 a year had been earmarked for such investigations. The former CEOs and Chief Financial Officer as well as store managers are also on trial. In addition, four police officers are accused of handing over confidential information from police files.

Ikea France said in a statement that it takes the protection of its employees’ and customers’ data very seriously. The company added that it adopted compliance and training procedures to prevent illegal activity and changed internal policies after the criminal investigation had been initiated. But at Monday’s hearing, Ikea France’s lawyers denied a system-wide surveillance. The case was also called “a fairy tale” invented by trade union activists.

The deputy prosecutor claimed, Ikea France had illegally monitored at least 400 people and used the information to its advantage. She is asking for a fine of EUR 2.000.000 against the company, prison sentences of at least one year for two former CEOs and a private investigator, as well as fines for some store managers and police officers. A total of 15 people have been charged. The company also faces potential claims for damages from civil lawsuits filed by unions and several employees.

The trial ended on April 2nd. A verdict by a panel of judges is scheduled for June 15th.