Why AI Is Watching Workers

Big Brother or safety monitor?

Key Takeaways

  • AI systems that monitor delivery trucks are unfairly penalizing Amazon drivers, a new report claims.
  • The Amazon system is part of a growing trend of companies using tech to monitor their employers remotely.
  • Some AI software allows employers to continuously monitor employee behavior in the background and draw patterns in their workflow.
courier sitting in the van and entering delivery address in the car navigation device

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Employers are increasingly turning to software to monitor employees remotely, raising concerns among some privacy advocates. 

A new report claims AI-powered cameras in Amazon's delivery vans have unfairly penalized drivers. The article found that drivers suffered from erroneous alerts, incorrect driver scorecards, impractical traffic condition assumptions, and drivers adopting practices to circumvent the technology.

"While AI is improving, mistakes will still be made," Raymond Ku, director of the Center for Cyberspace Law & Policy at Case Western Reserve University, told Lifewire in an email interview. "As a matter of fairness, I think we all believe that someone being penalized in any way by AI decision making should be made aware of the fact and given an opportunity to challenge the decision."

Amazon’s AI Cameras

Amazon has said it installed AI-powered cameras in its delivery vehicles as a safety measure. The cameras are intended to monitor when delivery drivers perform dangerous maneuvers like running stop signs or making illegal U-turns.

When the cameras spot possible unsafe driving "events," these instances factor into workers' performance scores. Lower scores reduce the chance of drivers getting bonuses, extra pay, and prizes.

But Amazon drivers told Motherboard that they’re being punished for some driving habits that are considered safe or beyond their control. Amazon didn’t respond to a request from Lifewire for comment.

Ku pointed out that since the drivers agreed to be recorded, they aren’t suffering from an invasion of privacy under the law.

"However, that does not mean that the average worker would be happy with the surveillance or wouldn’t object if they could," he added. "This is especially true when the surveillance starts to encroach on more traditional personal spaces."

The report raises broader questions of whether the data can be accessed and used in lawsuits or by police and federal officials, data privacy attorney Bethany A. Corbin told Lifewire in an email interview. It could also impact liability, she pointed out.

"For example, if the AI technology tells the employee not to look in the side mirrors and the employee has an accident as a direct result of that advice, who is at fault?" Corbin added.

Growing Surveillance

The surveillance doesn’t stop with Amazon. An increasing number of companies are using technology to watch their employees remotely, privacy expert Chris Hauk told Lifewire in an email interview.

For example, AI marketing firm Blackbelt uses an Allocate time tracking system, allowing the company to monitor and track its employees' computer activity autonomously. Microsoft's Workplace Analytics will enable employers to watch an employee’s length of time on websites, writing emails, and more during a workday.

Delivery person holding bag at front door

The Good Brigade / Getty Images

Walmart also is working on a system that listens for the sound of rustling of bags or beeps from checkout scanners to track employee metrics and ensure employees perform their tasks correctly and efficiently. The sensors can even listen in on customers as they chat while in line and detect whether or not employees are greeting customers properly.

Workplace surveillance is becoming more prevalent since the onset of the pandemic, privacy expert Pankaj Srivastava told Lifewire in an email interview.

"Most of this technology is positioned as 'improving productivity,' however, the way some of these tools operate suggests a greater tolerance of employers to monitor every activity of their workforce," he added. "For example, monitoring how much time employees spend on each task, taking a remote photo ensuring employees are at their desk, and even monitoring websites visited and recording an employee’s keyboard strokes and mouse movement."

"While AI is improving, mistakes will still be made."

Some AI software allows employers to continuously monitor employee behavior in the background and draw patterns in their workflow, he said.

"An employee can be fired based on their personalized performance report citing they took a few minutes longer to complete a task than usual," Srivastava said.

"Goodbye, bathroom breaks."

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