SchuminWeb / Emily Cho

The Digest: Walmart Patents Tech for Eavesdropping on Workers

byKristin Houser
7. 12. 18
SchuminWeb / Emily Cho

Save money. Live better. Maybe watch what you say.

BIG (BOX) BROTHER. Walmart doesn’t just want to compete with Amazon to dominate the retail realm. It’s also ready to challenge the company for title of nosiest employer.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office approved Walmart’s request to patent a system that would allow it to listen to its workers. According to the patent, the surveillance system would include various sensors positioned around the check-out area that would collect and analyze audio data. This data could include anything from the sound of a cashier bagging items to the conversations between employees and customers. Walmart could then use the analyzed data to evaluate an employee’s performance.

BACKFIRING BIG-TIME. According to the patent, Walmart believes the system could help it save money and increase customer satisfaction. “We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers,” a Walmart spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. In other words, this patent is just another idea Walmart is kicking around — the company has no concrete plans to put it into practice.

However, at least one labor expert isn’t convinced the system detailed in the Walmart patent would produce the company’s desired effect. “Several studies have shown that there is a psychological impact of pervasive surveillance,” Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, told BuzzFeed News. “[Workplace surveillance] can 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.”

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DON’T SAY THE U-WORD. Again, this is just a patent. But the fact that Walmart is even considering the tech shows the company’s not opposed to the idea of spying on workers. And it has a lot of workers it could spy on, should it be so inclined — more Americans work for Walmart than any other company.

So far, Walmart has effectively prevented those workers from unionizing. If they did form a union, employees could negotiate with Walmart about the system, perhaps requiring the company to obtain consent before putting it into use, Ajunwa told BuzzFeed News.

If Walmart gets its system into stores before that happens, though, workers would probably be wise to keep any whispers of unionization far away from the cash registers.

READ MORE: Walmart’s Newly Patented Technology for Eavesdropping on Workers Presents Privacy Concerns [BuzzFeed News]

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More on employee surveillance: Amazon Patents Tracking Wristbands That Spy on Warehouse Workers


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