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Germany fines H&M €35 million for worker ‘surveillance’

German data protection authorities said Wednesday they fined the Swedish clothing chain more than €35 million over illegal 'surveillance' of its employees.

Germany fines H&M €35 million for worker 'surveillance'
Store entrance in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

The amount is the highest fine for such breaches in Germany since its latest data-protection legislation came into force two years ago, a spokesman for Germany's watchdog for the issue told AFP, in a country known for
jealously guarding the right to privacy.

Company bosses at the group's service centre in Nuremberg were found to have delved too deeply into the private lives of their employees, acquiring information “ranging from rather harmless details to family problems and
religious beliefs”.

Detailed “symptoms of illness and diagnoses” were also recorded and stored digitally, the authorities said in a statement.

“The present case documents a serious disregard for employee data protection at the H&M site in Nuremberg,” said Johannes Caspar, the Commissioner for Data Protection in Hamburg, where H&M's German arm is based.

“The level of the fine imposed is therefore appropriate and suitable to deter companies from violating the privacy of their employees.”

'Incompatible' with policies

The watchdog said managers at the service centre conducted “welcome back” talks with employees after their return from illnesses or holidays.

The symptoms and diagnoses of illnesses as well as holiday experiences were documented, and were made accessible to up to 50 managers.

“The combination of researching their private lives and the ongoing recording of the activities they were engaged in led to a particularly intrusive violation of the rights of those affected,” the authority said.

The data collection had been ongoing since at least 2014, and only became known when the information became accessible company-wide for a few hours in October 2019 due to a computing error.

H&M said they would “carefully examine the decision”, adding that “practices in the processing of employee data in Nuremberg were incompatible with H&M's policies and instructions.”

“After the incident was discovered and reported, H&M immediately initiated far-reaching measures at the Nuremberg service centre,” the company said.

“H&M takes full responsibility and would like to express an unconditional apology to the Nuremberg employees.”

The fine is one of the highest in Europe linked to the European Union's data protection rules, known as GDPR.

The law, implemented in 2018, says that individuals must explicitly grant permission for their data to be used, and can impose fines on companies worth four percent of their worldwide annual revenue.

France fined Google €50 million in January 2019 for failing to provide accessible information on its data-consent policies, calling out the internet giant's use of targeted advertising.

Meanwhile in July last year, British Airways was fined 183 million pounds (€201 million), by the UK's data authorities after computer hackers stole bank details from hundreds of thousands of passengers

Germans hold privacy in high regard, as manifested in their continued high usage of banknotes and coins rather than credit cards. It is often considered to be a reaction to oppressive surveillance under the Nazis and East German Stasi.

Separately, H&M announced Thursday it will close 350 out of its 5,000 stores worldwide as the coronavirus pandemic pushes more shoppers online. The fashion chain returned to profit in its June-August quarter, having tumbled
into loss the previous three months at the worst of coronavirus lockdowns.

READ ALSO: Why Germany will never forget the Stasi era of mass surveillance

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RUSSIA

Germany arrests Russian scientist for spying for Moscow

German police arrested a Russian scientist working at an unidentified university, accusing him of spying for Moscow, prosecutors said on Monday, in a case that risks further inflaming bilateral tensions.

Germany arrests Russian scientist for spying for Moscow
Vladimir Putin. Photo: dpa/AP | Patrick Semansky

Federal prosecutors said in a statement that the suspect, identified only as Ilnur N., had been taken into custody on Friday on suspicion of “working for a Russian secret service since early October 2020 at the latest”.

Ilnur N. was employed until the time of his arrest as a research assistant for a natural sciences and technology department at the unnamed German university.

German investigators believe he met at least three times with a member of Russian intelligence between October 2020 and this month. On two occasions he allegedly “passed on information from the university’s domain”.

He is suspected of accepting cash in exchange for his services.

German authorities searched his home and workplace in the course of the arrest.

The suspect appeared before a judge on Saturday who remanded him in custody.

‘Completely unacceptable’

Neither the German nor the Russian government made any immediate comment on the case.

However Moscow is at loggerheads with a number of Western capitals after a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders and a series of espionage scandals that have resulted in diplomatic expulsions.

Italy this month said it had created a national cybersecurity agency following warnings by Prime Minister Mario Draghi that Europe needed to
protect itself from Russian “interference”. 

The move came after an Italian navy captain was caught red-handed by police while selling confidential military documents leaked from his computer to a Russian embassy official.

READ ALSO:

The leaders of nine eastern European nations last month condemned what they termed Russian “aggressive acts” citing operations in Ukraine and “sabotage” allegedly targeted at the Czech Republic.

Several central and eastern European countries have expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague but Russia has branded accusations of its involvement as “absurd” and responded with tit-for-tat expulsions.

The latest espionage case also comes at a time of highly strained relations between Russia and Germany on a number of fronts including the ongoing detention of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who received treatment in Berlin after a near-fatal poisoning.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has moreover worked to maintain a sanctions regime over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the scene of ongoing fighting between pro-Russia separatists and local forces.

And Germany has repeatedly accused Russia of cyberattacks on its soil.

The most high-profile incident blamed on Russian hackers to date was a cyberattack in 2015 that completely paralysed the computer network of the Bundestag lower house of parliament, forcing the entire institution offline for days while it was fixed.

German prosecutors in February filed espionage charges against a German man suspected of having passed the floor plans of parliament to Russian secret services in 2017.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas last week said Germany was expecting to be the target of Russian disinformation in the run-up to its general election in September, calling it “completely unacceptable”.

Russia denies being behind such activities.

Despite international criticism, Berlin has forged ahead with plans to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to double natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany.

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