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Prosecutors say Ikea's French branch illegally spied on its employees and applicants as well as its customers for years. Managers allegedly gained access to confidential data on criminal records and bank statements.
The French branch of furniture giant Ikea and several former executives went on trial on Monday in Versailles over accusations of spying on its staff.
A criminal probe into the company was opened in 2012 following reports of a widespread snooping system that was used against employees as well as customers who were in disputes with Ikea France.
Prosecutors say the French subsidiary hired a private security company to illegally obtain information on its employees and prospective staff as part of a "spying system" that operated from 2009 to 2012.
The information gathered included confidential documents such as criminal records and bank statements.
In one case, Ikea France is accused of trying to dig up criminal records on an employee who drove a nice car
Ikea France used this system to target union members and union representatives, as well as customers who had legal disputes with Ikea, prosecutors allege.
Some 15 people are on trial over the spying system, including former CEO Stefan Vanoverbeke and his predecessor, Jean-Louis Baillot.
Those on trial include four police officers who are accused of handing over confidential information to Ikea France.
Journalists with the investigative journal Canard Enchaine first reported on systematic spying at Ikea France in 2012 — prompting one union to lodge a legal complaint.
One former employee and union activist, Hocine Redouane, told the court on Monday that Ikea France wrongly suspected him of being a bank robber, after finding criminal records involving a bank robber with the same name.
"Such a system can easily slip into abuse," he said.
The company is also accused of investigating how an employee was able to afford a BMW on a low income, including probing whether they had a criminal record.
A similar accusation concerns the company using unauthorized data to go after an employee who claimed unemployment benefits while driving a Porsche.
Jean-Francois Paris, the former head of Ikea France's risk management department, told judges that he earmarked €530,00 to €630,000 ($633,000 to $753,000) per year for the security firm and for such investigations.
Lawyers for Ikea France denied that there was a strategy of "generalized espionage."
Ikea France also released a statement on Monday, saying that it "takes the protection of its employees' and customers' data very seriously."
Ikea's main parent company, based in Sweden, has distanced itself from the alleged snooping practices in France.
Ikea France faces a fine of up to €3.75 million in the case.
The 15 others charged in the case could face prison sentences of up to 10 years, while the two ex-CEOS could also be fined up to €750,000 each.
The trial is expected to last until April 2.
rs/dj (AFP, dpa, AP)