- Walmart was awarded an employee surveillance system patent Monday for "listening to the frontend." The patent, filed in April 2017, describes a system of sensors distributed throughout a shopping facility to receive and process audio data and establish metrics of employee performance.
- The system could measure employees by factors such as number of bags used, number of items scanned, items per page, length of customer lines or time spent with customers, according to the patent.
- Because Walmart employees are not unionized, the store would be within its legal rights to implement such a surveillance system without sending notice and obtaining consent, reports BuzzFeed News. However, audio surveillance of employees bears the risk of abuse by managers, especially for employees looking to unionize or members of certain racial, ethnic or gender groups.
Just because Walmart won the patent does not mean it will execute the surveillance technology. "We file patents frequently but that doesn't mean the patents will actually be implemented," according to a company statement emailed to CIO Dive. "We're always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers."
But the patent does speak to growing tends in the technology and retail spaces.
As the internet of things blooms with dropping hardware costs and more advanced technology, connected systems are cropping up everywhere. With so much opportunity to take in and analyze audio and visual data, every aspect of the work environment is opening up to scrutiny, with artificial intelligence waiting at the end to crunch the information and drive greater efficiency.
With more performance metrics to collect data on, employees are being measured under stronger microscopes. But "Big Brother" surveillance, such as those deployed by Amazon in its warehouses, have raised concerns about dampening employee morale and productivity — the very thing such optimization systems seek to bolster.
Walmart said the patent is not intended to "gather metrics and improve the checkout process by listening to sounds produced by the bags, carts and cash registers and not intended for any other use," according to the company statement.
Walmart has filed for other patents that raise privacy questions, including a courier shopping system and blockchain-based vendor payment sharing system, that seek to monitor behavior over time to create consumer profiles.