Netherlands: Webcam surveillance in home office illegal

Eine Webcam (Symbolbild)
After a successful lawsuit, the employee is now entitled to over 60,000 Euros in compensation.(Source: Unsplash)

An employee in the Netherlands was instructed by his employer to keep his webcam on during all working hours. When he refused, he was fired. However, a Dutch court has now ruled that the instruction was an invasion of his privacy and the company must pay him damages.

The man had worked from home for the Dutch branch of the U.S. IT company Chetu. According to the ruling published last week by the District Court of Zeeland-West Brabant, the employee was told on August 23 that he would have to take part in a “Corrective Action Plan” with immediate effect. He was instructed to share his screen content throughout the working day and to keep his camera switched on.

However, the employee refused to turn on the webcam. After repeated requests from his employer, he had stated via email, “I am not comfortable being monitored by a camera for 9 hours a day. This is an invasion of my privacy, and I am very uncomfortable with it.” All activity on his computer could already be monitored, and his screen was unlocked, he said.

After further requests to turn on his camera, he had received his immediate dismissal on August 26, citing “refusal to work.” The man had filed a complaint against this.

Infringement of the right to privacy

The court now upheld the employee’s claim and declared the termination without notice invalid because the reason for termination was not made sufficiently clear. In addition, the plaintiff could invoke the protection of his privacy.

The company had argued that the camera surveillance was no different from being present in the office, where the employee could also be seen by others. The court did not agree. Although it did not assume that the camera recordings would be stored, the video surveillance was an encroachment on the right to privacy, which is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. There had been no justifiable reason for this encroachment on fundamental rights.

The court referred to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. In November 2017, the Court ruled that video surveillance in the workplace – whether secret or not – is to be regarded as an interference with the right to privacy. Such an interference can therefore only be justified if it is in accordance with the law and necessary to achieve a legitimate objective.

Compensation for the dismissed employee

The court has now granted the plaintiff 50,000 euros in compensation and a transitional allowance of over 9,000 Euros. Chetu must also pay the plaintiff any outstanding wages and remaining vacation days. However, the company can still appeal the case.

The U.S. civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) had criticized in summer 2020 that while many people had to work from home due to the Corona pandemic, companies were increasingly using digital surveillance technology. While the person concerned in the current case was instructed to turn on his camera, the EFF also reported special surveillance software that records keystrokes or regularly takes screenshots, for example.

Similar rights to those now enjoyed by the Dutch employee had recently been granted to students by a U.S. court. There, a court ruled in August that a student’s privacy was violated because he had to have his room inspected via webcam before an online exam. (js)