What are the Risks of Disregarding Employee Privacy Rights in Europe and the US?

Feb 29, 2024

The rise in remote and hybrid work models in the post-pandemic era has redefined the workplace, eroding the already blurred boundaries between personal and professional lives. This evolution raises renewed concerns about employee privacy, as employers often collect various forms of sensitive data about their employees when monitoring everything from work emails and tracking login times to acquiring biometric information and even tracking employee location.

While balancing employer needs with employee privacy rights in this era has become a critical challenge, the regulatory approaches taken by the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) to govern employee privacy differ significantly. This divergence impacts how data is collected, used, and safeguarded, creating a wide contrast in employee privacy regulations between the two regions.

Two Paths Diverge: US Patchwork vs. EU’s Unified Framework

The fundamental difference between the two regions begins with their contrasting legal frameworks. The EU’s data protection framework adopts a “privacy-by-design” philosophy, prioritizing individual rights and data protection as a fundamental right. This approach is reflected in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which sets a single, comprehensive data privacy law mandating strong protections for individuals’ personal data, including that collected in the workplace. It acts as a unifying force across all EU member states, ensuring consistent standards and enforcement. 

In stark contrast, the US lacks such a cohesive approach, relying instead on a patchwork of regulations that stem from various federal agencies and state legislatures, often targeting specific industries, such as healthcare or finance. As a result, employee privacy protections can vary dramatically depending on location and industry. For instance, The California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) grants strong data privacy rights, while other states offer minimal, inconsistent protections. This inconsistency highlights the necessity for a federal data privacy law that establishes consistent standards for employee data protection across the US.

Monitoring vs. Control: Divergent Approaches to Workplace Data

In the US, the regulations governing employee privacy are disorganized and fragmented. In addition to laws like the CCPA, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) restricts employer access to employee communications on company-owned devices (like emails), its interpretations and exemptions create ambiguity. For example, while employers cannot directly access personal emails, monitoring metadata or requiring work accounts on personal devices raises privacy concerns. Additionally, employers have broad leeway to monitor work activities like internet browsing and keystroke logging, even in the absence of clear consent or justification. This lack of clear-cut boundaries often leads to litigation and inconsistent interpretations, leaving both employers and employees unsure of their rights and responsibilities.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the authority to investigate data privacy violations, but its enforcement actions are often settled out of court with relatively modest fines. 

One notable example of CCPA enforcement is the case involving Zoom Video Communications, Inc. In 2021, Zoom settled with the California Attorney General’s Office over alleged CCPA violations. The case against Zoom addressed concerns about the company’s data privacy practices, leading to agreements to enhance data privacy and security measures and provide more transparency in data practices. Zoom agreed to pay $85 million as part of the settlement. While the case didn’t explicitly cite employee privacy violations, CCPA provisions extend to employee data, ensuring their privacy rights are protected alongside consumers.

In contrast, the EU provides a clearer picture for employee privacy. The GDPR applies to any organization processing the personal data of individuals in the EU, regardless of its location. This means companies operating outside the EU must comply if they handle EU employee data. The GDPR grants individuals extensive control over their personal data, including the right to access, rectify, and erase it. They also have the right to object to automated data processing and profiling, requiring employers to have a lawful basis for collecting and using employee data, such as explicit consent or necessity for fulfilling the employment contract. 

One recent example of GDPR enforcement is the case against Amazon. In July 2021, the Luxembourg National Commission for Data Protection (CNPD) imposed a fine of €746 million (approximately $887 million) on Amazon for alleged violations of the GDPR related to the processing of personal data.

The CNPD found that Amazon’s processing of personal data did not comply with the GDPR’s principles of lawfulness, fairness, and transparency. The fine was one of the largest penalties imposed under the GDPR since its implementation in 2018. Although the ruling is still under appeal, it underscores the significance of GDPR enforcement actions in holding companies accountable for their data processing practices and ensuring the protection of individuals’ personal data rights, including employees working within the EU’s member states.

Enforcement on the Ground

Significant disparities exist in the enforcement methods that ensure compliance with employee privacy regulations. In the US, individuals have the right to sue employers for privacy violations under various federal and state laws. However, pursuing litigation can be expensive and complex, often deterring individuals from asserting their rights. But when employer practices deemed privacy invasions do land in court, the consequences can be severe. In February 2023, an Illinois court found White Castle violated the state’s biometric privacy act by mandating fingerprint scans for pay stubs and transmitting data to an external vendor without consent. Recognizing each scan as a separate violation, the restaurant chain was ordered to pay a hefty $17 billion in restitution.

Under the EU’s GDPR, each member state establishes independent data protection authorities empowered to conduct investigations, issue warnings, and impose significant fines for non-compliance with data privacy regulations. This centralized system with robust enforcement mechanisms creates a stronger deterrent for companies tempted to misuse employee data, and imposes significant financial repercussions on companies found in violation. In April 2020, the Dutch data protection authority (AP) fined an unnamed company a record €750,000 for illegally collecting and storing employees’ fingerprints, citing violations of GDPR regulations.

These contrasting enforcement models highlight a key difference in how the US and EU prioritize accountability. The decentralized and resource-limited approach in the US creates a less robust system for holding violators accountable, potentially leaving employee privacy vulnerable. In contrast, the EU’s centralized and well-resourced enforcement system provides a stronger safeguard for employee data privacy.


While both regions recognize the importance of employee privacy, the EU’s GDPR undoubtedly offers a more comprehensive and effective approach. Its emphasis on transparency, individual control, and strong enforcement mechanisms provides employees with greater safeguards and empowers them to manage their data with more autonomy. While the US is taking steps towards strengthening data privacy protections, achieving the level of comprehensiveness and consistency offered by the GDPR remains a work in progress.

Are you concerned your company might not be compliant with employee privacy laws? Click here to book a demo and speak with a Datafisher specialist.