The idle, polite chatter between you and the Walmart employees could soon be surveilled. Why? The company says that in order to increase “cost savings” and “guest satisfaction,” they would like to install a new surveillance technology in their stores. However, those with privacy concerns view this as yet another step in the wrong direction.
This new surveillance technology would use “sound sensors” that would be “distributed throughout at least a portion of a shopping facility.” The audio that is collected would be used to see if “employees are performing their jobs efficiently and correctly” and Walmart states that it “would help us gather metrics and improve the checkout process by listening to sounds produced by the bags, carts and cash registers and not intended for any other use.”
It appears that the technology would be deployed by the cash registers, and would pick up “beeps,” “rustling noises,” and “conversations between guests and an employee stationed at the terminal,” detailed BuzzFeed News. And as it is customary these days after raw data is gathered, the information would be used to calculate “performance metrics.”
The patent purports that the audio that the sensors pick up is not the primary focus, but rather, “the system can process the audio of the conversation to determine whether the employee stationed at the terminal is greeting guests.”
The retail giant has filed a patent for the system, titled “Listening to the Frontend,” but says it doesn’t know if it will actually implement the technology.
Arguably, keeping track of the number of items in a transaction could be easily done already with the cash register system. And as far as tracking whether employees are properly greeting customers, that appears to be something that could be done by a human supervisor.
Paula Brantner from Workplace Fairness said that “If I’m suddenly being recorded, and I’m standing in line chatting with my boyfriend and the audio could pick that up, I’d want to know about that,” reported the Washington Post.
And indeed, consumers have entered an era when data breaches and privacy concerns are a known problem, thanks to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. It’s unclear where the collected audio would be stored, what company would be in charge of doing the analysis, and how long the collected audio would stay within the company’s domain.
Some believe this is a push by Walmart to compete as Amazon bought Whole Foods. Regardless, it’s another point of controversy for those with privacy concerns. And as far as the Walmart employees go, the company hopes that if implemented, the workers would quickly assimilate and accept the new surveillance techniques.