American Express sued over outsourced call centers and data privacy

June 17, 2011

Amex dataOutsourcing of U.S. labor overseas is a pretty hot political issue.

But while some are writing to their representative in Congress, others are filing class action lawsuits.

Heidi Pickman is such an individual, and the suit is against American Express.

However, Pickman isn’t suing because her job was outsourced; she’s suing because of constitutional issues arising from corporations using foreign labor.

This is where it gets a bit more complex.

According to the complaint, American Express maintains a network of call centers that extends around the globe.

The Amex customer is connected to these call centers by calling a U.S.-based 800 number, and thereafter a system determines which call center is currently receiving the lowest volume of calls, and the call is transferred to that center.

The problem is, per the complaint, Amex doesn’t notify its customers that their calls are being transferred to call centers overseas, staffed by foreign nationals.

Unfortunately, this is a problem beyond simple hurt American pride.

According to the complaint, during the course of these calls, the foreign nationals that are employed by Amex receive electronic data transmissions (EDT) which contains the customer’s spending, consumption, and financial records.

This is where the Constitution comes in.

Since the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure does not apply to EDT received by or sent from foreign national residing overseas, the U.S. Government may intercept such EDT without regard to constraints imposed by Constitution.

Apparently, the complaint says that the government is already collecting (and subsequently storing) billions of such transmissions a day, including all or nearly all sent by Amex overseas.

The complaint goes on to say that this only happens because of data being transmitted outside of the U.S., and such wouldn’t be the case if the call centers were located within the country.

Actually, it makes no secret of the fact that it highly disfavors “job exportation,” since it goes out of its way to call attention to the fact that Amex closed down its call center facility in Greensboro, North Carolina and eliminated 1,500 jobs, and conjectures Amex’s motive to be simply profit.

Indeed, this has all the makings of a “policy suit” – that is, a lawsuit that seeks to influence policy concerns usually better left with legislatures to handle, the legal merits here are the strongest yet for such a lawsuit.

Pickman goes all out on the causes of action, presenting a whopping 14 in her complaint.

While some are stronger than others, a legitimate legal case can be made for all of them.

The success of this lawsuit will hinge mostly on whether Pickman can demonstrate that the U.S. government is either currently engaging in the collection of data, or at least has the capability to do so, as the complaint alleges.

If the suit is successful, though (and assuming it isn’t settled out of court), the implications are colossal.

Unless Fourth Amendment protections are extended internationally (which just isn’t going to happen), corporations will not be able to outsource any job that requires the handling of sensitive U.S. customer data.

That will see a reversal of the outsourcing trend, at least to a small degree, fulfilling the long-term goal of this policy suit.

However, that probably isn’t going to happen, since this lawsuit suffers from the same defect as all lawsuits: it can be settled outside of court.