Walmart Patents Surveillance Technology and Here is How It Could Affect Its Workers

Surveillance Technology Walmart is looking to mimic Big Brother—the hit reality TV show in which a group of contestants are constantly under video surveillance. Walmart hopes to become the Big Brother of the real world with its recently patented audio surveillance technology.

Walmart may soon become the Big Brother of the real world, keeping track of everything that happens within it stores remotely. While we don’t expect Walmart to isolate its workers from the outside world or using an invisible voice to direct them, we can see the retail and ecommerce giant punishing employees who are caught breaking the rules by the company’s surveillance technology. We say this because Walmart has recently patented audio surveillance technology to monitor employees and customers at its retail outlets.

About Walmart’s Recently Patented Audio Surveillance System

Composed of several sensors, Walmart’s audio surveillance system can collect all kinds of data, including beeps and noise from paper bags. Any data gathered by the audio surveillance technology can be used to assess the performance of an employee. For example, Walmart can find out how efficient someone is at bagging purchases by checking for the sounds items make when they’re placed inside a bag. Additionally, the company can determine how long a customer line is and how quickly a cashier can get through all of them through the voices of the customers.

Perhaps, the most invasive feature of Walmart’s audio surveillance is the system’s ability to understand conversations and use them to judge an employee’s performance. A system capable of ‘listening to the frontend’, Walmart’s audio surveillance can collect audio data from the cashier areas of the retail outlets, making it possible for Walmart to listen to everything from beeps to conversations with customers to, potentially, conversations between workers. This ability of the surveillance technology is enhanced by the system’s ability to analyze the sounds to ensure the employee is working efficiently, which Walmart hopes will help to achieve ‘cost savings’ and ‘customer satisfaction’.

The company so far has refused to comment on the patenting of the audio surveillance technology and whether the technology will be used to get a measure of the staff’s productivity in the future. However, talking to BuzzFeed News, a spokesman of Walmart had the following to say about the recently patented audio surveillance technology:

We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers.” “We don’t have any further details to share on these patents at this time”.

It is still unclear when, or even if, Walmart will actually introduce the technology in its stores. However, since Walmart is thinking about it, it shows how corporate giants are looking to increase the use of technology to track and control their workers, which in all honesty is likely to be counterproductive. Evidence shows that excess surveillance makes workers feel nervous and actually ends up slowing them down.

How the Audio Surveillance Technology Can Potentially Benefit Walmart

The recently patented audio surveillance technology could benefit Walmart by giving it a clearer view of how to streamline the customer experience. If Walmart decides to implement the new surveillance technology, it will be able to closely monitor several metrics that allow it to boost performance of workers. Perhaps the biggest reason for Walmart to implement this technology in stores is reviewing customer-employee interactions to make sure that workers are satisfying customer needs. If the company can turn this data into actionable insights, it may well be able to boost efficiency and customer satisfaction.

What Walmart want the audio surveillance technology to achieve is perhaps best described by the technologies patent which indicates that technology has been designed to minimize store costs and boost customer/visitor satisfaction. The patent read as follows:

One way to track performance metrics for employees is the use of a system including sound sensors near point of sale (‘POS’) terminals.” The system could “correlate the audio data with an employee that is stationed at the terminal and determine a performance metric for the employee.”

According to an experienced retail consultant who we talked to about the recently patented audio surveillance system of Walmart, the focus of the patent is on driving workplace efficiency through the use of ‘data’, which the company believes is ‘the next frontier’ for retailers.

The Danger to Employee Privacy

We’re well into the 21st century and yet there aren’t any laws in the U.S barring private employers from collecting data about workers. Existing law does not require employers to even inform employees about measures that intrude their privacy, let alone restrict such measures. There is a clear violation of employee privacy going on and U.S lawmakers are currently doing nothing. The audio surveillance technology of Walmart is the latest example of this.

Talking to Buzzfeed, Ifeoma Ajunwa—an assistant professor at the Cornell University industrial and Labor Relations School, had the following to say about the growing intrusion of employee privacy:

There’s sometimes a misconception that the consent of employees is required for surveillance, but 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.”

Walmart does not offer any sort of union contract to new hires, which limits the ability of Walmart workers to address the system or demand being given a notice or granted a requirement for consent before any technology/system that intrudes their privacy is implemented.

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by Bobby J Davidson

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