Walmart Patents "Big Brother-Style" Surveillance Technology to Eavesdrop on Workers' Conversations

Just the latest corporation to spark privacy concerns over worker surveillance efforts, Walmart has patented audio technology that would allow the retail giant to eavesdrop on conversations among employees and between clerks and shoppers, to measure employee performance.

According to the patent document filed with the U.S. government, Walmart is calling the invention “listening to the frontend.” The patent reads, in part: 

In addition to capturing conversations, according to the patent, Walmart’s spy system could also track the length of lines at the checkout counter, how many items are scanned, and the number of bags employees use. Although the technology could, for example, determine if a line is too long and more cashier lanes need to open, Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, told BuzzFeed News, “There’s a lot of potential for misuse.”

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“There’s potential for mission creep where it’s more like, ‘as a cashier you’re too friendly, you’re talking too much, and therefore not moving people along, so let’s penalize you,'” Ajunwa explained. “Even though the technology is presented as interested in one thing, the fact that it has the potential for both things to be captured is of concern.”

While the patent claims that “tracking performance metrics for employees to ensure that the employees are performing their jobs efficiently and correctly can aid in achieving these costs savings [for the company] and increases in guest satisfaction,” Ajunwa said that “several studies have shown that there is a psychological impact of pervasive surveillance,” pointing to findings that it can actually “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.”