Retail colossus Walmart just patented a new technology meant to monitor employee productivity via audio surveillance of checkout counters. The technology, which Walmart calls “listening to the frontend,” aims to increase employee efficiency by using sensors to monitor sounds that can indicate how long lines are, how many bags are being used, and, most unnervingly, conversations among employees or between employees and customers.
Unlike competitor Amazon, Walmart has the burden of physical retail stores, which costs more money than Amazon’s largely automated warehouse and delivery systems. So it’s unsurprising that they’re looking to squeeze as much productivity out of their workers as possible.
Right now, this is just a patent, and it’s unknown whether Walmart will ever develop it. But it shows that Walmart is following in Amazon’s footsteps when it comes to finding new and inventive methods of invasive employee surveillance. When asked for comment, Walmart told BuzzFeed News, “We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers, but we don’t have any further details to share on these patents at this time.”
BuzzFeed explains how this technology would work:
Based on the application, Walmart’s patented surveillance system would use a series of sensors in the cashier area to collect audio data — everything from “beeps” to “rustling noises” to “conversations between guests and an employee stationed at the terminal.”
It would then analyze this information and use it to calculate various “performance metric[s]” for the employee.
Most invasively, the system could also be used to analyze voices of customers and guests to see if they’re interacting, and even to listen to what they’re saying. “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,” the patent description explains.
This Big Brother-style surveillance feels icky, especially from a retail giant known for its terrible abuses of its underpaid employees. But according to Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, there’s nothing in labor laws that prevents this kind of practice.
“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,” Ajunwa told BuzzFeed.
Though there are some legitimate reasons why a company like Walmart might want to listen to its employees, the risks for abuse are great.
Ajunwa tells BuzzFeed:
“The sound recording is helpful for determining if the line is too long, let’s automatically open a new cashier. But then 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. There’s a lot of potential for misuse.”
Furthermore, surveillance of this kind is known to actually make employee productivity worse. “Several studies have shown that there is a psychological impact of pervasive surveillance,” Ajunwa said. It tends to increase resistance from employees towards management, who feel, rightly, that they’re in an oppositional relationship.
The only way to control this kind of surveillance, other than the benevolence of the employer, is if through demands by an employee union. But as we all know, Walmart employees have no union, thanks to relentless union-busting campaigns by the company.
Walmart is the country’s largest employer, which means 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.