Amazon, Walmart Patent Tech to Constantly Monitor Employees
Keeping a close eye on employees is nothing new. Security cameras, timeclocks, and human supervision have long been necessary tools to monitor workers. But Amazon and Walmart may be looking to take employee supervision to the next level, as patent details give us a glimpse into new technology it may soon be implementing.
Earlier this year, it was reported that Amazon received two patents for wristbands that could be used to “monitor performance of assigned tasks.” These bracelets, which work like a Big Brother-controlled FitBit, contain an ultrasonic unit that can provide “haptic feedback” to direct warehouse workers to the location of merchandise for shipping. Amazon, whose reputation among warehouse workers is less than stellar, stated that the wristbands were designed to streamline “time consuming” tasks.
However, privacy advocates disagreed.
Concerns that the bracelets could be used to constantly monitor employee’s hand movements, location, and activities raised concerns that Amazon and other employers are “increasingly treating their employees like robots.” And in a job where employees are already highly scrutinized, the monitoring bracelets could negatively affect morale and increase anxiety.
Not to be outdone by its biggest competitor, Walmart has also patented monitoring equipment intended to spy on workers. The “audio surveillance system” would be used to provide a “performance metric for the employee.”
The system would include multiple sensors to collect several types of audio data, including beeps from the cash register, ambient sound from bagging merchandise, and conversations between employees and customers. The audio would be transmitted and reviewed by supervisors in real time.
The section from the patent detailing the system’s ability to monitor conversations highlights what may be the system’s most invasive feature:
“If however the performance metric is based on the content of the conversation (e.g., was a specific greeting used or script followed), the system can process the audio detected by the sound sensors 102 (e.g., using speech recognition) to determine the performance metric.”
Cashiers could have their every word scrutinized, and potentially be reprimanded for being too talkative, or not upselling specific merchandise.
Beyond the issue of privacy, many have questioned what mental impact this could have on employees. The psychological effects of pervasive surveillance has been well-researched. Experts agree that it decreases trust, increases stress, and negatively affects relationships.
It’s important to note that these are currently just patented concepts, and could remain as such. It’s not uncommon for companies to receive patents that never materialize. But with automation poised to replace human interaction, it appears that two of the nation’s largest employers are eager to blur the lines between them.