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Walmart Wins Patent for Employee Audio Surveillance Technology

Walmart has been awarded the right to a patent system that receives and processes the audio interactions of employees as they work. Filed in 2017, the audio surveillance technology is set up throughout a shopping facility and listens to workers as they carry on their duties and sends the data back to a data center.

According to Walmart, the audio surveillance technology is intended to boost employee performance by measuring certain metrics. Some of the metrics the surveillance can measure include:

  • Number of bags used in shopping facilities
  • Number of items scanned
  • Number of items listed on a page
  • Length of customer lines
  • Amount of time spent in attending to each customer

Big Brother or Efficiency?

Privacy advocates argue the audio surveillance technology intrudes on personal privacy, dampens employee morale and risks abuse by managers. The patent is part of the growing data collection and analysis trend as technology advances and companies look for ways to improve efficiency, but it also creeps ever closer to an Orwellian atmosphere.

Amazon attracted attention in 2016 for its unusual efforts to combat employee theft by broadcasting employee silhouettes across large screens with the words “terminated” or “arrested” sprawled across them.

“That’s a weird way to go about scaring people,” James McCracken, a former employee at Amazon’s warehouse in San Bernardino, CA, told Bloomberg. “I think that’s offensive.”

Nevertheless, Walmart said winning the patent does not mean it will implement the audio surveillance system just yet.

“We file patents frequently but that doesn’t mean the patents will actually be implemented,” Walmart wrote in a statement to CIO Dive. “We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers.”

CIO Dive also reported that Walmart has filed for other patents that raise similar privacy concerns. The patents are for a “courier shopping system and blockchain-based vendor payment sharing system”, that will allow the company to build customer profiles and track customer behavior, preferences and purchases over time.


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