Amazon Takes Employee Monitoring to the Next Level

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Did you hear about Microsoft’s email system being hacked? Yikes! I was a bit nervous at first then I remembered that I use Fastmail because of its commitment to security and privacy. I haven’t look back since. Click here to try it free for 30 days.

I talked about “Employee Surveillance” in the past because, like now, I see it as a growing privacy concern. In the never ending quest for workplace efficiency, companies monitor workers to the Nth degree in order to squeeze out as much work output as possible. On the surface, it may sound appealing. However to the worker, its not always an ideal situation.

The Jim Stroud Show – April 2019

Amazon has been on the cutting edge in its pursuit of workplace efficiency, to a fault. The latest iteration was reported on by VICE. Here is a quote:

Amazon delivery drivers nationwide have to sign a “biometric consent” form this week that grants the tech behemoth permission to use AI-powered cameras to access drivers’ location, movement, and biometric data. 

If the company’s delivery drivers, who number around 75,000 in the United States, refuse to sign these forms, they lose their jobs. The form requires drivers to agree to facial recognition and other biometric data collection within the trucks they drive.

Further along in the article it reads:

“Amazon may… use certain Technology that processes Biometric Information, including on-board safety camera technology which collects your photograph for the purposes of confirming your identity and connecting you to your driver account,” the form reads. “Using your photograph, this Technology, may create Biometric Information, and collect, store, and use Biometric Information from such photographs.”

It adds that “this Technology tracks vehicle location and movement, including miles driven, speed, acceleration, braking, turns, and following distance …as a condition of delivery packages for Amazon, you consent to the use of Technology.”

There have been more than a few privacy concerns. Some of them from the US Senate. To quote CNBC.

Five senators are calling on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to provide more information on the company’s recent deployment of “surveillance cameras” in vehicles used by contracted delivery drivers.

In a letter Wednesday, Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut asked for more clarity on Amazon’s use of footage collected by the cameras and the scope of their use, with a deadline for Bezos to respond by March 24.

The letter was in response to reporting by CNBC in February, which revealed that Amazon recently began rolling out cameras from Netradyne in vehicles at a handful of contracted delivery partners across the U.S. The cameras, which Amazon said record drivers “100% of the time,” have four lenses that capture the road, the driver, and both sides of the vehicle. The cameras are equipped with software that’s capable of flagging a series of safety infractions, including failure to stop at a stop sign, speeding and distracted driving.

In a training video distributed to delivery firms, Amazon said the cameras will help improve safety across its delivery network, but drivers and privacy advocates raised concerns about the potential for heightened employee surveillance and a lack of privacy.

Some Amazon delivery drivers do not appreciate this added layer of efficiency and some are quitting their jobs because of it. Here is a quote from Business Insider.

He started work in 2019 and saw Amazon’s policies change to include more active means of surveillance. First there was an app tracking his route. Then the company wanted pictures of him at the beginning of each shift on another app, he told the foundation.

But the breaking point came, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, when Amazon announced it would be installing AI cameras in its fleet of vehicles.

Insider reported in February that Amazon was equipping all delivery vehicles with an AI camera system called Driveri, which is manufactured by a company called Netradyne. The cameras are always on and scan drivers’ body language and the speed of the vehicle, detect if a driver is wearing a seatbelt, and even measure drowsiness. The system then uses “automated verbal alerts” to tell drivers if a violation has been detected.

When Amazon announced the policy change and gave its drivers a deadline to agree to the surveillance protocols, Vic told Thomson Reuters Foundation that he decided to put in his notice.

“It was both a privacy violation, and a breach of trust,” he told the foundation. He also said the company requiring drivers to agree to constant surveillance to do their jobs seemed like “a sort of coercion.”

Amazon has faced scrutiny before because of its surveillance of customers as well as its workers. According to VICE, “at least 200 law enforcement agencies around the country have entered into partnerships with Amazon’s home surveillance company Ring.” For some, this constitutes a “surveillance empire” where Amazon and police can monitor homes via their RING system and quite possibly now via truck delivery cameras. Click here to read the security and privacy concerns surrounding this alliance. But, I digress.

Amazon is by no means the only company to take the pursuit of efficiency to the Nth degree. According to CNet, Apple has been walking a compliance tightrope on the issue.

Apple recently banned its manufacturing partners from collecting facial recognition scans and the fingerprint data of Apple employees who visit manufacturing facilities, according to a Wednesday report by The Information. Citing an internal Apple document it reviewed, the outlet also reports that the new privacy rule does not apply to the more than 1 million factory workers who make Apple’s products. 

The internal document is reportedly part of Apple’s new security protocols aimed at reducing intellectual property theft, and also includes a mandated increase in surveillance camera use at manufacturing facilities, along with upgrades to component tracking systems that monitor Apple hardware during production. The document requires manufacturers to conduct criminal background checks on factory workers as well. 

So, where are all of these new incarnations of employee surveillance heading? I think towards a major employee revolt, unless the company can prove such measures are beneficial to the worker. Accenture proved this with a survey they conducted in 2019. Here’s a quote:

Among the key findings: While more than six in 10 C-level executives (62 percent) said that their organizations are using new technologies to collect data on their people and their work to gain more actionable insights — from the quality of work and the way people collaborate to their safety and well-being — fewer than one-third (30 percent) are very confident that they are using the data responsibly.

In addition, more than half (52 percent) of workers think that the use of new sources of workforce data risks damaging trust, and 64 percent said that recent scandals over the misuse of data makes them concerned that their employee data might be at risk too. The good news is that 92 percent of workers are open to the collection of data on them and their work, but only if it improves their performance or well-being or provides other personal benefits. More than six in 10 workers (62 percent) would exchange their work-related data for more-customized compensation, rewards and benefits, and 61 percent would do so for more customized learning and development opportunities.

I think companies will always push the envelope on employee surveillance because who doesn’t want a well run company? I think what gets companies, especially big tech companies, in hot water is when they start treating their workers like machine parts instead of people. So, in this regard, I offer Amazon (and other big tech companies) some free advice that they will likely ignore.

  • Whatever your next efficiency technology is, do not force your employees to comply to it. Offer them clearly defined benefits for opting in and the more pervasive the initiative, the higher the reward.
  • Clearly spell out what information you are collecting, how it will be be used and who will have access to it.
  • Every employee should have access to any information collected on them. Workers should have the right to dispute what has been collected, in the event of a discrepancy.
  • Put a time limit on how long the data can be stored and update the employee once its done.
  • Do not rely solely on a machine when making choices about your workers. Take it into consideration, of course, but no machine is perfect and should never supersede human wisdom.

To all big tech employees I wish you well. Protect your privacy. Who knows how far your data will go?


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