Walmart Develops Technology To Eavesdrop On Employees And Shoppers

“Big Brother” is coming to Wal-Mart stores, threatening the privacy of employees and customers.

The nation's largest retailer has developed technology that will enable its managers to listen in on workers' conversations among themselves and with shoppers.

A patent document Wal-Mart filed with the federal government claimed that “tracking performance metrics for employees to ensure that the employees are performing their jobs efficiently and correctly can aid in achieving costs savings and increases in guest satisfaction.” The company wrote that “a need exists for ways to capture the sounds resulting from the people in the shopping facility and determine performance of employees based on those sounds.”

According to Common Dreams, the technology also will monitor the length of checkout lines, the number of products being purchased and how many bags workers use. While that may sound innocent enough, Cornell University's Ifeoma Ajunwa warned that “there's a lot of potential for misuse.”

The professor told BuzzFeed News: “There's potential for mission creep where it's more like, 'as a cashier you're too friendly, you're talking too much and therefore not moving people along, so let's penalize you.' Even though the technology is presented as interested in one thing, the fact that it has the potential for both things to be captured is of concern.”

Ajunwa cited “several studies (which) have shown that there is a psychological impact of pervasive surveillance.” She said the practice could “lead to this opposition feeling where employees view the employer not as benevolent, but as dictators; and it can impact that attitude toward the higher-up and can lead to resistance.”

Splinter, referring to George Orwell's classic dystopian novel “1984,” reported: “This Big Brother-style surveillance feels icky, especially from a retail giant known for its terrible abuses of its underpaid employees. … Technology like this, if implemented, would have an impact on millions of Americans. It seems we don't need an authoritarian state to monitor our every thought. Our biggest corporations are happy to do it for us.”

Wal-Mart likely will not even be required to notify workers that it is eavesdropping on them, according to Ajunwa. “Frankly, as long as the employer can make an argument for why the surveillance is necessary for a business purpose as opposed to a discriminatory purpose, there's no law that says consent is required,” she explained.

Employees represented by labor unions might be able to negotiate contracts that require notifications when managers plan to listen in on their conversations. However, most of those who work at Wal-Mart are not organized, largely because of the company's aggressive union-busting efforts.

Wal-Mart will not be the first corporation to subject its workers to such surveillance. BuzzFeed noted that call centers often record the discussions their workers have with customers. Earlier this year, Amazon boasted that it had obtained patents for a wristband to track how warehouse employees use their hands when packaging orders. The device buzzes when a worker makes an improper movement.

Amazon's announcement met with howls of protest from labor organizations, privacy advocates, and social-media users. The United Food and Commercial Workers union tweeted: “This is frightening. What if your employer made you wear a wristband that tracked your every move, and that even nudged you via vibrations when it judged that you were doing something wrong?”

Ben Norton tweeted: “Amazon's new idea goes to extremes to treat workers like robots. … Meanwhile, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the richest person on the planet.” Eric Loomis warned that “there is no technological advancement that employers don't weaponize against workers,” while Emma Vigeland told Amazon: “Your workers are not cattle.”

GeekWire, which obtained a copy of Amazon's patent document, reported that the wristband also can tell an employee where to find products in the warehouse. The company wrote: “Existing approaches for keeping track of  where inventory items are stored … may require the inventory system worker to perform time-consuming acts beyond placing the inventory item into an inventory bin and retrieving the inventory item from the inventory bin.”

Martin Ford, who wrote “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” told the New York Daily News that “for Amazon, I believe technologies like this are largely a stop-gap measure until robots can take over more of the work.” He continued: “Currently, workers need to do the picking of packages because the robots don't yet have the necessary dexterity.”

Common Dreams pointed out that Amazon was already abusing its workers by enforcing time limits for packing boxes and taking restroom breaks. In addition, the company is notorious for overworking its employees. A BBC analysis two years ago found that delivery-truck drivers had to break the speed limit to meet expectations. Many of the drivers have dozed off behind the wheel, risking their lives and endangering other motorists.

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