Justice

Ikea France goes on trial for allegedly spying on staff, customers

Ikea France and a slew of former senior employees went on trial Monday for allegedly spying on staff, job applicants and customers in an elaborate and illegal information gathering system between 2009 and 2012.
Ikea France and a slew of former senior employees went on trial Monday for allegedly spying on staff, job applicants and customers in an elaborate and illegal information gathering system between 2009 and 2012. AFP

The French subsidiary of Swedish home furnishing giant Ikea and several of its former executives went on trial Monday on charges that they operated an elaborate system of illegally spying on customers, staff members and job applicants.

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Four former Ikea France executives, former store managers, four police officers and the head of a French private investigation firm were among the 15 people in a courtroom in Versailles, south of Paris, on Monday.

They face charges relating to incidents revealed by French publications Canard Enchaîné and Médiapart in 2012, after which trade union Force Ouvirère took legal action over alleged collecting and disclosing personal data and information by fraudulent means.

Prosecutors now say Ikea France operated a “system of spying”, illegally gathering information about the private lives of hundreds of current and potential staff, including confidential information about criminal records.

After the criminal probe was launched in 2012, the company fired four executives, one of whom has accused the management of keeping a budget for such investigations.

“Since the revelation of the facts in 2012, Ikea France has firmly condemned and apologised for a situation that seriously undermines the company’s values and ethical standards,” the company said in a statement published Monday. 

Luxury cars

At the heart of the alleged spying system is Jean-François Paris, Ikea France’s former director of risk management, who prosecutors accuse of sending lists of names of individuals to be reviewed to private investigators on a regular basis. 

Such investigations allegedly involved trying to figure out how one employee who claimed unemployment benefits could drive a Porsche and how another could afford a BMW on a low income. 

In another case, Paris wanted to know how a staff member in Bordeaux went from being “a model employee” to “a protester” that he suspected of presenting “a risk of eco-terrorism”, according to court records of emails. 

The company is also accused of inappropriately accessed personal information of customers who had disputes with it.

Prosecutors said such requests went to the boss of a private surveillance firm who allegedly paid four police officers for information held in confidential databases. 

According to court documents cited by news agencies, Paris told judges up to 600,000 euros per year were reserved for such investigations and that his department was responsible for handling it.

Finger pointed at former CEO

The charges relate to incidents allegedly happening from 2009 to 2012, but prosecutors said spying practices began in the early 2000s. 

Former CEOs Jean-Louis Baillot and Stefan Vanoverbeke, former CFO Dariusz Rychert, the private investigator, some store managers and the four police officers are also on trial.

Paris told French media in 2012 that Baillot personally pushed the idea, which involved placing private investigators in certain stores to spy on supposed troublemakers. Baillot said at the time that the accusations were “grotesque”. 

If convicted, he and Vanoverbeke each face sentences of up to 10 years in prison and fines of 750,000 euros. Ahead of the trial, Baillot’s lawyer, François Saint-Pierre, told AFP agency the former CEO “wished to explain himself before the court”. 

Some defence lawyers said they would challenge the lawsuit, including Olivier Baratelli, lawyer for a former human resources director, who claimed the cased was “a fable constructed by unions”. 

Damage to reputation

Ikea France, which employs more than 10,000 people in 34 stores, an e-commerce site and a customer support centre, itself faces a maximum penalty of 3.75 million euros, as well as potential damages from civil lawsuits.

“It would appear inconceivable that a company of this size, with several stores in different countries, would not be aware of the illegality of the private data available to it,” prosecutors said, according to court documents. 

Emmanuel Daoud, a lawyer for the company, acknowledged the case had revealed “organisation weaknesses” at Ikea France, which had since been addressed by an action plan and revamp of hiring procedures.

“Whatever the court rules, the company has already been punished very severely in terms of its reputation,” he said. 

The trial is scheduled to last until 2 April. 

(with newswires)

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