Employee Surveillance Is Rising to New Dystopian Heights

Amazon's new driver surveillance cameras may put employee privacy in the backseat.
Brad Bergan

The way to becoming a trillion-dollar company isn't paved with philanthropy — on the contrary, it lies in pushing legal limits to new dystopian heights.

Recently, Amazon revealed the use of constant monitoring cameras in company vehicles — to "improve driver behavior," according to an informational video from the firm.

However, in light of how Amazon develops surveillance techniques to monitor warehouse workers — both on and off the clock — Amazon delivery drivers' lives could become a lot harder.

Amazon's employee surveillance camera

Amazon partnered with the startup Netradyne to design and install monitoring cameras in delivery vehicles. The driver-monitoring system is placed on the roof, just behind the windshield — and it features four cameras, with three pointed outside the delivery van and a fourth pointed squarely in the driver's face.

Computer-vision software allows the system to identify dangerous situations — from within and without the delivery vehicle. For example, upon running a stop sign, the system will know and give the driver an audio warning. But it's hard to call this a warning, since the system will automatically transmit the footage to Amazon's services.

It also detects whether drivers are falling asleep at the wheel.

Drivers may turn off Amazon camera while stopped

When it comes to helping drivers notice stop signs or resist falling asleep, the benefits of monitoring are hard to ignore — especially when imagining "Amazon Delivery Vehicle" inscribed on your tombstone. The footage-based report to corporate is also triggered when drivers go too fast or risk tailgating other vehicles. It even knows when drivers glance at their smartphones.

However, when the delivery vehicle goes through hard braking, or sharp- and U-turns, Amazon's new employee surveillance system sends footage without telling the driver.

To Amazon's credit, the company video cites limitations to the device — like its inability to record audio or monitor in real-time. The company also says no one is supervising or remotely-watching drivers, and lets drivers turn off the driver-facing camera when the vehicle isn't moving.

Amazon's 'guard rail' logic puts privacy in backseat

Yet questions remain regarding the value of surveilling employees. While Amazon claims the new system can "reduce collisions by one-third through improved driver behavior," the system could create new hidden dangers to employee jobs. For example, if a collision happens, footage will provide direct evidence in the driver's favor — assuming they aren't deemed responsible.

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This system can act like virtual "guard rails" for good driving habits, but the primary concern lies more in optimizing driver efficiency than providing a respectful environment, where employee privacy and dignity come first.

Amazon created programs to surveil employees off-the-clock

Last September, Amazon reportedly wanted to hire an intelligence analyst to identify labor organizers — and then said the job listing was made "in error," according to a Motherboard report. But the review of internal documents, additional reports, and an online tool shared online suggested Amazon actively developed an advanced, secret strategy team to spy on workers in closed Facebook groups.

Amazon later confirmed that the tool — exposed on the domain sharkandlink.com — was developed by the company. The exposed files revealed an active surveillance program monitoring Flex drivers on relatively private pages — like social media accounts — to see if employees planned "any strike or protest against Amazon."

"The following social forums mentioned in the table are to be monitored during Social media process," read the document, according to Motherboard. Surveilled Facebook groups included "Amazon Flex Drivers of Los Angeles," "Amazon Flex Drivers," "deactivated Amazon Drivers," and many more.

New 'megacycles' compel workers to work daunting nightshifts

This raises troubling questions about the ethics of surveilling employees not only in general, but in the acute context of increasingly daunting demands of labor.

Recently, Amazon workers were forced to combine separate shifts into a single, overnight shift — working for 10 or 11 hours in an overbearing shift called the "megacycle." A flyer posted to Twitter from a workers' organizing group called Amazonians United New York suggests the megacycle generally extends from 1:00 AM or 2:00 AM until 11:00 AM, or even noon.

The flyer also says Amazon management typically add workers onto a megacycle shift with "very little warning," and notes that workers can end up "forced off the job" if they turn down the new shift schedule.

First to the story, Motherboard explained what happened when this megacycle policy went into effect: on Jan. 25, management at an Amazon Chicago location told workers their warehouse — called DCH1 — would be shut down, with an alternative shift stretching from 1:20 AM to 11:50 AM at a new Chicago-based warehouse.

Amazon's surveillance approaching dystopian heights

In addition to the megashift, Amazon's practice of giving workers a "make rate" — which monitors the productivity of workers  (some of whom package hundreds of boxes per hour) — can become cause for termination, if the boxing rate descends too low.

Describing the dystopian heights of surveillance, Co-Director Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, who's also a noteworthy Amazon critic, said: "You've always got somebody right behind you who's ready to take your job," according to a report from The Verge.

Documents show these productivity terminations are much more commonplace than outsiders realize. In light of Amazon's unkind practices with warehouse employees, it's not hard to imagine how delivery drivers will feel about the company's latest surveillance camera system — which, while technically legal, will likely extend the web of anxiety to the people everyone sees daily on public streets, perhaps driving better, but more watched than ever.

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