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Walmart patents surveillance tool that can eavesdrop on workers (engadget.com)
111 points by jrwan 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

...How much further are we going to let this sort of thing evolve?

This is classic Industrialist overreach. Taft-Hartley be damned. Enough is enough. Corporate America needs a wake-up call, and I think the unions may need to brush off the dust and get back in the game.

It's one thing to play with hypotheticals, but Corporations are starting to leverage capital advantaged positions in order to dictate what values the average American can expect in their lifetime.

It's a slow, insidious process that will happen over several generations, and if a stand isn't made against this sort of thing, it qualifies as implicit acceptance of the status quo.

If industry is going to try to build itself into a position where it can micromanage every iota of the working day out of a perceived superior position brought by cornering the "market" on economic power "capital", then labor needs to be willing to say "have fun with that, we'll find another way to survive."

I get this may come across as hyperbolic rhetoric, but it is absolutely INSANE that people are thinking about IMPLEMENTING these sorts of things.

I take it you've never worked in a call center?

Everything is randomly recorded and workers are micromanaged down to the minute. You came in a minute late. You came in a minute early. You didn't take lunch when we told you to. Your calls run too long. Your calls are too short.

That on top of the UBA tools being deployed against workers to track how much time they spend working vs tweeting, WPM typed, etc.

This has been going on for a very long time under the name of "adherence" or equivalent. Walmart getting in on this game isn't exactly new.

The recordings stopped being random a long time ago. I work for a major insurance company and literally every second I am logged in, they record what I say and do. This company has had an issue with fraud being committed by employees so I understand their scrutiny but it still is unnerving to think about.

This far: http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm

Good short story on surveillance & algorithms micromanaging low wage workers.

Great story. It also describes how the powerful keep the benefits of automation to themselves instead of letting everyone's life get better.

> ...How much further are we going to let this sort of thing evolve?

If you have read any sci-fi from the early/mid 20th century, you already know the answer to that.

+1. I spent my youth starting at 15 reading sci-fi books from the 50s onward, and the number of dystopian futures depicted as pure fantasy then but not that far from becoming reality now is disturbing. I'd dare to say that reading that genre is likely the best possible way to educate kids minds to see current events coming years before they actually do.

> "have fun with that, we'll find another way to survive."

Well, that's the thing. No one would accept a shitty deal unless they had to. All other means of survival have been privatized hundreds of years ago.

Honestly, a big part of it is the lack of ethics training that engineers receive. Far too many engineers have a, "The problem is fun/interesting, that's all the further I'm going to think about it. The implications of what I'm working on are not my department." We need to start thinking more about what we're building, how it's going to affect the world, and how it can be misused.

It’s great to have ethics and refuse unethical projects, but reality is that there is a line of people outside of your employer’s door. They just have to find one person willing to set ethics aside.

I remember refusing a stinky project. It was pointless. I didn’t get fired or anything—-manager just assigned it to the guy in the next cubicle over.

There are more recent resources, but see for example from 1993: "The Ethical Engineer: An "Ethics Construction Kit" Places Engineering in a New Light" by Eugene Schlossberger https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17137987-the-ethical-eng... "On occasion, professionals need to use moral reasoning as well as engineering skills to function effectively in their occupation. Eugene Schlossberger has created a practical guide to ethical decision-making for engineers, students, and workers in business and industry. The Ethical Engineer sets out the tools and materials essential to dealing with whistle-blowing, environmental and safety concerns, bidding, confidentiality, conflict of interest, sales ethics, advertising, employer-employee relations, when to fight a battle, and when to break the rules. The author offers recommendations and techniques as well as rules, principles, and values that can guide the reader. Lively examples, engaging anecdotes, witty comments, and well-reasoned analysis prove his conviction that ""ethics is good business."

Langdon Winner is another person who writes on this topic at a more abstract societal level, like in his "Autonomous technology: technics-out-of-control as a theme in political thought". https://www.langdonwinner.com/

And see also "Disciplined Minds" by Jeff Schmidt: http://disciplinedminds.tripod.com/ "Who are you going to be? That is the question. In this riveting book about the world of professional work, Jeff Schmidt demonstrates that the workplace is a battleground for the very identity of the individual, as is graduate school, where professionals are trained. He shows that professional work is inherently political, and that professionals are hired to subordinate their own vision and maintain strict "ideological discipline." The hidden root of much career dissatisfaction, argues Schmidt, is the professional's lack of control over the political component of his or her creative work. Many professionals set out to make a contribution to society and add meaning to their lives. Yet our system of professional education and employment abusively inculcates an acceptance of politically subordinate roles in which professionals typically do not make a significant difference, undermining the creative potential of individuals, organizations and even democracy. Schmidt details the battle one must fight to be an independent thinker and to pursue one's own social vision in today's corporate society. He shows how an honest reassessment of what it really means to be a professional employee can be remarkably liberating. After reading this brutally frank book, no one who works for a living will ever think the same way about his or her job."

But there are no end of others. But living up to your ideals is often easier said then done in so many areas of life... It helps to have a group of people with common ideals to support each other.

But for example, when I was in CivilEngineering&OR graduate school in Princeton in the late 1980s, I was essentially told by the then director of graduate studies that taking a public policy course from Frank von Hippel ( https://www.princeton.edu/sgs/faculty-staff/frank-von-hippel... ) that included topics like ethics and engineering policy especially about energy policy and weapons proliferation would hurt my career there and was strongly discouraged from taking it. I took it anyway. :-) But that was all no doubt part of why I ended up leaving after a year. The majority of other engineering students even then were from other countries and funded by their governments or companies and had less choice in how compliant they had to be.

That was perhaps a reason Princeton lost a chance at maybe being the first to develop the web (although I made many mistakes myself along the way too): https://pdfernhout.net/princeton-graduate-school-plans.html "This was my proposal for graduate studies at Princeton University twenty [now thirty] years ago (and in some ways includes a proposal for creating a mini-Google and a mini-World-Wide-Web. :-)."

This is great stuff. Thank you.

For any given website, if you can log in and chat with an employee, the conversation is logged. This is normal.

If you call a corporation and chat with them, the conversation is recorded and used for quality purposes. This is normal.

If you grab some groceries and ask to return one of the items you thought was on sale but wasn't, and this fact is noted by an audio recording system, suddenly this isn't normal.

I don't have feelings about this either way, but it's interesting to contrast the situations.

Microphones and cameras don't just pick up "what you want". A key press is more than appropriate to gather the desired "this isn't on sale" metric.

This device is also not intended for that use case. It's meant to generate metrics to "ensure employees are actually greeting." If you are SO FLUSH WITH CASH and in such a dearth of things to do with it that you are quite literally trying to optimize your greeter metrics, there is a bloody problem.

Then there is the case that the very idea borders on abusive micromanagement. The kind that can only be plausibly skated under the radar through copious use of passive voice when describing it.

Life worked JUST FINE not being recorded audio/video or otherwise.

If profit hounding is reaching such high levels, a Wal-Mart greeter can't be trusted to make a decision whether or not a customer is in the mood for a greeting, then it is quite obvious that someone further up the chain has completely lost touch with the idea of "Professional Courtesy".

Never mind that half of this metrics gathering wouldn't be necessary if the company weren't trying to out grow the problem it's trying to solve by hemorrhaging labor in favor of machines.

The modern community is rife with distrust. More and more, people drift farther and farther away from each other. Mental and physical illness become more and more serious problems as humans are increasingly expected to behave as mass-produced cogs, interchangeable, and undeviating in how they carry out their job. The human psyche doesn't cope well with that. Humans are DYNAMIC. They are creative creatures, with difference being built into every decision.

The kind of control that industry keeps pushing for illustrates that leadership has little, or deprioritizes any semblance of human respect and dignity in how they engage with labor in favor of a more attractive bottom line to attract investers.

It isn't innovation. It isn't improvement. It certainly isn't engaging with and being a fundamental positive force within a community.

It's about plopping a pump down into a puddle of untapped value and sucking it dry, to hell with the consequences for society, the community, or those we leave behind to emulate the values we clearly espoused by letting it happen unchallenged.

I don't know about anyone else, but this is disgusting behavior of a sort that deserves more than mild degree of censure.

Agreed. This is insane at every level.

Let's play this out - imagine they implement this. They spend millions (realistically tens/hundreds of millions) putting up sensor systems, spinning up data center capacity, hiring analysts and all the auxiliary work that goes along with this sort of program, all for what - to further dehumanize some poor middle age single mother who's making $9 an hour? And for what -to optimize some stupid metric?

Walmart would be far better off putting that money into the wages of their lowest paid employees, or investing that money into manager training and giving people on the ground help.

In my mind this is where inequality really starts to bite - this level of surveillance at work is disproportionately aimed towards those with the least power and agency.

It's like a game of chicken. Those in control of society make things worse and the people at the bottom either suck it up or upend the table in response to this new social contract.

People naturally want a stable peaceful life and will suck it up.

But one day this bluff will be called.

Well said.

What kills me is we hear about this w/ regards to lower waged workers. I make many times more than a Walmart worker and I don't have near the pressure on me to perform. I put it on myself, because I know I'm privileged to be doing something I enjoy, but I don't have to put up with anything near what they do. I think it's just another example of the haves hating on the have nots. They don't trust them to do their jobs well so they have to poke and pry at them. It's disgusting.

Don’t fool yourself. If an analyst could find a way to squeeze additional value out of you in excess of the cost of squeezing, they would. The profit macro-optimization is done already, in most industries. Workers are all in for a constant series of micro-optimizations, forever.

When you're having a conversation through an industrialized medium, you may or may not like the fact that your conversation is preserved, but it isn't a surprise if it is, because you have the sense of it taking place through just such a medium (even if it's something you've never articulated).

If you're talking to a checker (or anyone) face-to-face, there's an absence of any explicit industrial medium. You're going to have the sense that whatever industrialized processes are in place, the face-to-face conversation is out-of-band. Of course it's going to be a surprise when it's not, short of explicitly notifying people otherwise.

It's about going too far, and yes--there is a line.

I don't find it "interesting" in the slightest.

People, even at work, should have some privacy rights.

I don't think a Worker's Privacy Bill will get passed in the near future. The corporations have won for now. It's too bad.

We are so conditioned to being abused by corporations they have us arguing over where the line is.

These corporations know hiring will never be a problem for most positions, so why not get cute?

In any organization, when you don't have any team spirit; your employees/widgets will find ways to screw you over.

I find Amazon's hand monitor patent appalling.

(I'm dropping you again Amazon--thanks for another reason. I was going to drop them because they changed the way to drop the monthly Prime plan, but this news was the last straw.)


Depends on your viewpoint. An effective Union in principle post Taft-Hartley is essentially an organized crime organization, seeing as the most effective method of forcing Big Industry to the negotiating table, secondary strikes, were made illegal to organize as a formal Union.

Without the amplifying power of network effects to offset Industy's increased cash reserves to simply wait out the miniscule by comparison reserves of a legal Union, there really is no serious incentive to get Industry actors to really pay attention. Thus is the danger of legislation without sunset dates.

Can't comment on ACLU. Haven't kept up with them nowadays.

Not just "eavesdrop on workers". Also "eavesdrop on customers". The patent itself tells us:

"the sound sensors can capture sounds resulting from guests talking while waiting in line at a terminal or any other sounds resulting from the presence of guest ... the sound sensors can capture audio of conversations between guests and an employee stationed at the terminal. The system can process the audio of the conversations to determine whether the employee stationed at the terminal is greeting guests."


I wonder how they'd make the required notifications to make this legal in one-party consent states. I don't see how this could fly at all in a two-party consent state.


From what I recall, even in two-party states, simply informing the other party is implicit consent, even if they say they do not consent to being recorded. The only way to reject consent is to hang up the phone, ending the conversation.

(one-party state means I know I'm recording the conversation, so it's legal - I'm not obligated to inform the other party).

In stores, you'll often see a sign somewhere near the entrance that says something like "Smile, you're on camera!", along with a CCTV showing the feed - which is enough to implicitly consent recording when on the premises. If you don't consent, you must leave the store.

So, I imagine a simple sign telling customers both audio and video surveillance is being conducted will be sufficient.

That’s just to deter people from stealing. In public spaces and semi-public spaces consent does not need to be given. A store is considered a semi-public space. There is no expectation of privacy in a store. Anyone can take pictures of you and record you if they want and you legally cannot do anything about it. You do not have to leave the store if you do not give consent unless you don’t want to be recorded. You’re still going to be recorded in the parking lot.

If they're not actually recording the audio (just a boolean of whether or not the cashier said "did you find everything you needed?"), they might not need anyone's consent.

Which would require the somehow the audio is "intercepted" to analyze that the greeting was said. Two-party consent state include that action. Storage is another thing, no?

They don’t need consent. A store is semi-public space. There is no expectation of privacy.


The realist in me knows that the people working at Wal Mart will accept this, because in the end they have no choice. But when you continue to squeeze people and control them more and more closely, eventually they wake up and realize who has the real power. Eventually the guillotine rolls out, and everything starts over.. Can we not do this this time?

The scary part is.. this time we have a much higher amount of control. Unless people are unwilling to not use that knowledge / power, then we are going to be less effective when the guillotine rolls out this time...

That being said, the initial Russian transition of power in WWI, where the czar stepped down was without (minimal) violence.[1] This is before the October revolution (which was violent).

[1] https://www.english-online.at/history/russian-revolution/rus...

this isn't a toe-in-the door surveillance maneuver to test the waters for people accepting it. this is scraping the barrel to get whatever last dregs of control remain.

we can choose not to roll out the guillotines this time.

but then we'd just get violated for longer.

because in the end they have no choice

With so few people unemployed, they have as much a choice now as they almost ever will.

Of course, thanks to Walmart's anti-union tactics, you won't see an organized workforce telling Walmart "No!"

> because in the end they have no choice

Or don’t care.

I have always been super supportive of automation and I think it is a net-positive.

But today I had a weird experience. You know those automated ordering things at fast food places, I used one for the first time today. It was exciting and fun at first (don't judge me), but then I looked up and realized no one was at the register and no one was speaking. The workers were simply packing bags and pressing buttons. It was a cold transaction between two humans, the human workers could've been robots and accomplished the same thing.

It makes me a little worried and sad that automation will cause our lives to be completely sterile and cold. No human interaction, just pressing buttons and staring blankly at each other.

You skirt around the probably motivation behind those machines. It isn't about speeding the order process, it is about removing language from the equation. At some basic level, the person taking the order must have language in common with the person placing the order. Throw a machine into the mix and you no longer need that commonalty. The person behind the counter no longer needs to speak the same language as the customer. Every time they remove such requirements they make labor that little bit easier to replace.

I'll admit to occasionally hitting the drive through on my way to work. It is odd to say, but that brief interaction through the window is the one time I'll talk to a stranger all day. (I work behind guarded doors and security barriers.) I don't want that person replaced by a machine.

As someone with mild social anxiety, I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

I hate having to talk with a stranger just in order not to starve to death.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm hired to do a job. Not be a (coerced) actor to every last dimension of my expression.

That's a much harder job. And if they insist on that, they can damned well pay -- a lot more -- for it.

And that's where the group of the impacted have to and, as far as I'm concerned, have the right to come together and say so.

Meantime, Walmart, as a tax payer, I'm tired of paying for your b-llshit (public benefits to full-time or should-be-full-time employees, ridiculous tax breaks (that go to the top, not the bottom), and all the rest).

> "[change relations to those] where employees view the employer not as benevolent, but as dictators."

It was never the former, but really can become the latter.

> ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers

Further enhance? Why?

innovation and a better tomorrow

This has got to stop people. I'm serious. We need to take collective action and do something before this stuff gets out of hand. Anyone got some resources on getting involved?

Talk with your friends about unions.

Talk with UFCW about its efforts to organize Walmart. The idea did occur to them some time ago. If it were at all easy, it would be done by now.

Oh yeah, I'm not suggesting it would be easy to organize Walmart! But if people start pushing back against the anti-union propaganda by discussing it as a viable option in various areas, normalizing it again, that would be a way to help.

Get a copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook, conveniently available at Amazon :)

The author now sees the premise to his own book as 'flawed': https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/19/anarch...

It will probably be time to figure out right doodads to break all this surveillance, permanently. As a customer, to protest the practice.

A union busting patent? Sickening. How is this allowed? I thought eavesdropping/recording an unknown wasn't allowed in many states.

won't it infrige on amazon's surveillance of clients for their workerless shop full of microphones and cameras?

Is this a reference to something specific?

Supposedly, Amazon employees watch the cameras in their stores, to know which Prime account to charge for which item. It sounds like a step between self-check and scan-bag-go, with a "mechanical Turk" to bridge the gap - turn Loss Prevention into legitimate checkout and a profit center.

lol so THAT is why they are so coy about how the system actually works. My neice asked one of the employees and he was constantly giving dodgy answers to everyone. I figured they just didn't want any employee letting any proprietary knowledge out..

yes, amazonGO. a shop where you enter, systems detect you via your phone or wireless card, you pick up what you want and leave. items show up on your credit card.

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