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Will Amazon’s Worker Tracking Wristbands Cross the Privacy Line?

March 5, 2018
Amazon's recent patent of technology that would emit ultrasonic sound pulses and radio transmissions to track where an employee’s hands were in relation to inventory bins, has raised concern over employee privacy.

Using technology to improve productivity is a time-tested path in all aspects of manufacturing, including warehouses.

With each new iteration, measurements become more precise and therefore create more opportunities for improvement in both efficiency and revenue increase.

But a recent patent acquired by Amazon that would require employees to wear devices on their wrists which would track their every move has sounded alarm bells as to whether this new foray into advanced technology comes up against the need for privacy.

Back in February Amazon was granted two patents, 981277 and 9881266, that allows the company to create “inventory management systems and related methods” that would track employee movements in order to monitor their performance when dealing with inventory, as reported by Cecilla Smith, Atlantic Black Star.

The technology would emit ultrasonic sound pulses and radio transmissions to track where an employee’s hands were in relation to inventory bins and provide “haptic feedback” to steer the worker toward the correct bin, as reported by  Ceyland Yegins, in the New York Times.

Amazon said the goal is to streamline tasks that are time-consuming, such as packing orders and the wristband could help fill orders fasters.

Yegins points out that critics say such wristbands raise concerns about privacy and would add a new layer of surveillance to the workplace.

Yegins also reported that both current and former Amazon employees said the company already used similar tracking technology in its warehouses and said they would not be surprised if it put the patents into practice.

A question coming to the minds of many is the legal implications of this type of tracking. Ally Marotti of the Chicago Tribune spoke with Lori Andrews, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law. “Employers are increasingly treating their employees like robots,” Andrews said

And this tracking could extend deeper than merely recording movement related to warehouse operations. Maroitti also spoke with Paula Brantner, senior adviser at employee rights organization Workplace Fairness who said that the “technology could lead to discrimination. Even if the wristbands don’t use GPS tracking, they could tell a company if a woman is taking longer bathroom breaks than co-workers or whether a disabled employee is moving more slowly, which could reflect negatively on their job performance.”

Currently, there aren’t laws governing this type of monitoring and the discussion will continue even as Amazon, and other companies, look into this technology. A lot of questions will have to be answered.

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