Amazon has further ramped up its already-extensive use of apps, algorithms, and other high-tech surveillance techniques it uses to control and discipline its workforce at its customer fulfillment centers (warehouses) and elsewhere.
Amazon added to its existing surveillance portfolio in December 2020 with new technology called AWS Panorama, ostensibly so that it and other companies can better monitor employees’ productivity. Its new hardware and software development kits (SDK) are embedded with additional machine learning (ML) and computer vision capabilities for said purpose.
Work surveillance pundits are concerned. Kate Rose, a digital security expert and founder of the anti-surveillance clothing line Adversarial Fashion, noted how spytech such as AWS Panorama can unfairly target the very employees who are usually spied on, such as older or disabled employees.
‘Improved productivity’ is inevitably the ruse used by the e-commerce and logistics giant to justify its spytech, not to mention provide reasons to dock pay and even fire employees.
More on that later.
Surveillance Gadgets Galore
Amazon’s obsession with using surveillance technology to control its employees is pervasive. One example is the wristband patent granted to Amazon in early 2018. The wristband vibrates in order to point an employee’s hand ‘in the right direction’ while working in a warehouse by means of an ultrasonic tracking device in the wristband.
The wristband works in tangent with the hand-held devices that all warehouse staff carry. Once an order comes in, the worker rushes to retrieve the product from one of the many inventory bins on shelves, to then be packed into a delivery box, and onto the next order.
All the while, the wristband is tracking the exact hand movements of the worker. It vibrates using ultrasonic sound pulses and radio transmissions via what the New York Times referred to as “haptic feedback” when the worker’s hands don’t move in the right direction.
According to Amazon in its patent filing, the wristband is used to streamline “time-consuming” tasks, so that workers in fulfilment centers (warehouses) can fill orders faster. Critics likened the wristbands to a further layer of surveillance of employees that treats people like robots.
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic revealed a new tangent to Amazon’s employee surveillance arsenal: social distancing. Amazon used cameras and sensors in certain facilities to ascertain whether employees were keeping safe distances from each other.
Known as the ‘Distance Assistant,’ it features a 50-inch monitor with overlaid graphics and using depth sensors that flashes red if an employee walked past it and was within six feet of another employee. The software was developed by Amazon.
Although supposedly for a good public health cause, the social distancing surveillance was considered a ‘slippery slope’ by experts. The fear is that the technology will continue to be used by Amazon and other companies even after the pandemic, as yet another means of controlling employees.
Albert Gidari, director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, noted how this type of social distancing technology could be abused:
“The biggest risk is mission creep, even if the initial implementation is health and safety in the workplace. It’s not a stretch to see this as a productivity-measurement tool [thereafter or in the future].”
An Obsession With Efficiency
Jeff Bezos (and by extension the company he founded) is notoriously obsessed with customer satisfaction, and thus efficiency. Central to how Amazon operates is the continuous assessment of productivity by its employees or ‘associates’. The company measures this with its Orwellian-sounding “proprietary productivity metric,” which determines (precisely, to the millisecond) how quickly an employee should process each order.
Emily Guendelsberger is a journalist whose 2019 book On the Clock revealed her undercover experience working in three workplaces synonymous with modern low-paid, high-stress customer service employment: an Amazon warehouse, a call center, and a McDonalds takeaway. She was particularly critical of her time at an Amazon warehouse outside Louisville, Kentucky.
Her experience using Amazon’s infamous ‘scan gun’ is telling: “The scan gun I used to do my job was also my own personal digital manager. Every single thing I did was monitored and timed. After I completed a task, the scan gun not only immediately gave me a new one but also started counting down the seconds I had left to do it.”
Efficiency trumped all else.
Amazon’s delivery drivers have also been tracked for some years now, always in the name of time efficiency. CNBC reported in February 2021 that Amazon had begun a roll-out of in-vehicle cameras from Californian start-up Netradyne that use artificial intelligence (AI) for a handful of contracted delivery partners across the United States.
The AI-enabled cameras record delivery drivers “100% of the time” on their routes. The company insists the cameras are used solely to monitor traffic infractions such as speeding and distracted driving. It’s also asserted that the cameras only upload footage for 16 types of actions such as hard braking. But the camera also claims to red flag drowsiness by being triggered when a driver yawns. The driver is then forced to pull over for 15 minutes.
However, employees and experts contend that the cameras amount to further surveillance and invasions of privacy on already hyper-monitored drivers. It also begs the question: how does one objectively monitor ‘distracted driving’ if not by a driver being actively watched?
Terms used by drivers to describe the new AI camera system (and all of them anonymously, for fear of reprisals) included “unnerving,” “Big Brother” and “just another punishment system”.
In the words of Silkie Carlo, Director of UK-based Big Brother Watch: “Amazon’s appetite for surveillance knows no bounds. This intrusive, constant monitoring of employees creates an oppressive, distrustful and disempowering work environment that completely undermines workers’ rights.”
Surveillance technology and efficiency rates work symbiotically at companies like Amazon. Guendelsberger states in her book that, “Technology has enabled employers to enforce a work pace with no room for inefficiency, squeezing every ounce of downtime out of workers’ days.”
Amazon’s Efficiency Obsession
Amazon’s use of surveillance technology on its employees goes beyond its neurosis with productivity rates. It also uses its tracking devices to control workers on the basis of their productivity, including how and why they get fired. This is particularly prevalent in its warehouses.
The importance of its warehouses to the Amazon behemoth cannot be underestimated. As Colin Lecher noted in his 2019 article in The Verge: “Amazon’s fulfillment centers are the engine of the company — massive warehouses where workers track, pack, sort, and shuffle each order before sending it on its way to the buyer’s door.”
Warehouse workers are relentlessly hard-pressed to achieve what is called the “make rate,” i.e. how long it should take for an employee to optimally finish a given task. ‘Inefficiency firings’ are rife, which even an attorney representing Amazon acknowledged when stating that the company fired ‘“hundreds’ of employees at a single facility between August of 2017 and September 2018 for failing to meet productivity quotas”.
Monitoring of employees by robots, apps, and algorithms is the backbone of this singular focus on productivity in something akin to ‘management by algorithm’. For example, Amazon uses what is called “time off task” or TOT, which monitors how long workers take a break from scanning packages. When these breaks become ‘too long’ (literally by seconds), warnings are automatically generated which can eventually get an employee fired.
It has been extensively reported how Amazon warehouse employees avoid bathroom breaks in order to not run afoul of the constant productivity surveillance. The same is true for delivery drivers contracted by Amazon. A famous undercover exposé by the BBC in 2016 revealed that many Amazon drivers resorted to urinating in plastic bottles in their vans instead of taking ‘time-consuming’ bathroom breaks during their rounds.
This ‘bathroom shaming’ as one pernicious form of employee control by Amazon was also noted by journalist James Bloodworth in his book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. Bloodworth noted how it was tech surveillance that made Amazon employees too scared to even go to the bathroom for fear of not meeting high productivity targets and thus risk being fired.
Amazon’s Union-Busting Tech
Amazon’s surveillance technology is not limited to keeping stringent tabs on productivity and assessing inefficiency in its employees and contractors. It is also being used to keep tabs on unionization efforts within the company.
Amazon is notoriously anti-union. The company has successfully thwarted any unions being formed by its American employees since it was founded in 1994. Time reported in 2014 on how Amazon successfully thwarted a union being formed at its warehouse in Middletown, Delaware. A few unions have been created at a few European operations in countries like Germany and Italy, but they are the exception, although a few of the unions were very vocal at the height of the pandemic during 2020.
In October 2020 a leaked 11-page Amazon memo dated February 2020 revealed the company had allocated staffing and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds for software, called the geoSPatial Operating Console, or SPOC, that would help the company better analyze data on unions.
A month earlier, Vice reported how Amazon’s human resources (HR) department had been found monitoring employee-focused listservs online that were potential hotspots for union activism.
A report issued by the Open Markets Institute in September 2020 (titled Eyes Everywhere: Amazon’s Surveillance Infrastructure and Revitalizing Worker Power), accused Amazon of using surveillance technology to thwart union efforts among employees. Unsurprisingly, the accusation also stated that said technology was being used to hyper-boost employee productivity rates.
The Open Markets Institute report cited devices such as the aforementioned wristbands as part of this internal surveillance regime. The report also alleged the use of heat maps and meta data regarding employees’ attitudes toward the company. Even a “diversity index” was developed to determine which locations were more likely to have unionization efforts. The goal? Separate employees who may be showing signs of wanting to unionize.
Amazon even got caught out in 2020 when CNBC reported the company had posted a job listing for two intelligence analysts to monitor “labor organizing threats” so that findings could be reported to “internal stakeholders” which included “executive leadership”. Amazon later deleted the job listing and denied its validity.
Amazon seems oddly averse to admitting the extent of its employee surveillance culture. Even its latest employee spyware technology, the aforementioned AWS Panorama, is touted as allowing clients to monitor “workplace safety,” and, specifically, “Automate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) detection to improve workplace safety practices”.
But even a seemingly benign client like guitar-maker Fender knows the true ‘value’ of the surveillance technology, when one of its VPs enthused: “With AWS Panorama and help from the Amazon Machine Learning Solutions Lab we can track how long it takes for an associate to complete each task in the assembly of a guitar so that we’re able to optimize efficiency and track key metrics”.
Amazon soon removed the Fender quote from its AWS website. Nevertheless, true to the Amazon ethos, it’s all about productivity, folks.
Ultimately, this rapacious surveillance by Amazon of its own employees must be seen in the wider context of contemporary scourges on labor and labor rights such as ‘zero hour contracts,’ ‘right-to-work’ legislation,’ and the so-called ‘gig economy’.
In the words of James Bloodworth after his six-month sojourn working undercover in an Amazon warehouse in the UK: “We perpetrate a swindle every time we use that hip phrase “the gig economy” to describe the modern labour market. If we wanted to be accurate, we could call it the “piece-rate” or the “precarious” economy. If we wanted to be polemical, we would call it the “rapacious” or the “boss-takes-all” economy.”
Invasive, 24/7 surveillance technology is indisputably at the heart of inhumane working conditions for Amazon’s warehouse workers and delivery drivers. They are technology-driven conditions that result in perverse invasions of privacy, high levels of stress, and even loss of employment which is already highly precarious.
These factors are both the indictment and epitome of today’s labor markets.
One thing is sure: ‘Productivity uber alles’ should be Amazon’s slogan.
 Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF): https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/09/workplace-surveillance-times-corona