The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Winter 2018

"Privacy vs. Efficiency: Amazon’s Patented Wristband Can Track Workers’ Movements" by Pascale Boonstra

 

On January 30, 2018, the tech giant Amazon won a patent filed in March of 2016 for a wristband with the capability to track Amazon employees’ location and hand motions in real time and vibrate to indicate a mistake in their movements [1]. The patent will join 7,210 other Amazon patents, a remarkable milestone in the relatively young company’s 24-year history [2].

The patented system is designed for an inventory warehouse where items are stored in catalogued bins. A typical computerized inventory management system stores information about the bin location of an item as well as its type. As workers place items into bins or take them out of bins, they scan a barcode or press a button that the management system associates with the specific bin.

The new patented method is comprised of three main parts that use Radio Frequency (RF) technology: ultrasonic transducers that correspond to various storage bins, a wearable unit that can transmit and receive RF signals, and a management system. The wrist units emit pulses that the management system can then use to monitor the location of a warehouse worker’s hands relative to a desired storage unit. Because both the location of the inventory item and the worker’s hands are known, this system can eliminate barcode scanning when placing or taking an item out of an inventory bin. Additionally, if the worker’s hands are detected in an incorrect location, the system notifies and corrects the user with a buzzing system based on haptic technology, also often used in smart watches.

 

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Fig. 1. A diagram in the patent application demonstrates the usage of the technology’s capabilities to track a warehouse worker’s movements relative to a storage bin. The inventory holder (18) holds inventory bins (20). The waves indicate the use of the ultrasonic technology. The worker (14) wears the wrist units (12) and places an item into the desired bin (22).  Ultrasonic transducers take the data from the inventory holder’s (18) desired bin (22) and communicate with the management system. 

It isn’t clear if the new system will actually be implemented in warehouses, but Amazon has explained the patent as a cost- and time-saving technology [3]. “Modern inventory systems,” according to Amazon’s patent, “face significant challenges in responding to requests for inventory items.” The new system could potentially streamline the process, eliminating the need for barcode scanning or button pressing.

The patent certainly highlights the cost-efficient benefits of the technology. However, Amazon is notorious for exploiting workers in infamously toxic workplace conditions to maximize profit. Although the company has become globally utilized for its convenience and diversity of products, it has also become known for its negative and high-pressure ambiance. A 2015 New York Times article criticized the Amazon work environment as unhealthy and emphasized the stressful environment forced on workers through a series of interviews with former employees [4].

A 2013 BBC undercover reporter took on standard Amazon warehouse work. As part of his investigation, he discovered that during a night shift, workers recorded up to 11 miles of walking. He was also required to collect all the items for each order in within 33 seconds in an 800,000 square foot warehouses, providing further evidence for the exhausting criterion by which workers are measured [5]. Two anonymous workers at New Jersey’s Florence and Carteret warehouses also released statements to The Street in September 2017, saying that despite working four 10.5-hour shifts during the week, they were required to work a fifth day of “mandatory overtime” [6].

Amazon has “Leadership Principles” on the amazon.jobs page, where it lists the desired qualities of its managing employees. Amazon says, in its own words, that managers should “insist” on having “unreasonably” and “relentlessly high” standards. Managers at warehouses scrutinize each worker’s performance, writing up employees who don’t meet an hourly goal. According to Vincent Tortora, who worked at an Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville, New Jersey, “the company itself, with rates you need to hit and all that, treats you like a robot.”

As technology becomes more adept at closely monitoring and observing people, it certainly remains questionable whether it is right to do so. Critics of the buzzing bracelets are concerned about Amazon’s rights to place such close surveillance on the workplace as well as taking an apprehensive approach towards the privacy implications these ultrasonic devices would have on the already demanding Amazon workplace at which breaks are monitored and advanced electronic systems micromanage each worker’s output.

If put into action, the wristbands will allow for a superhuman management of workers’ output and will condition workers to feel enormous stress when their bracelet buzzes. The devices ignore the essential imperfection of humanity, holding blue-collar workers to unattainable standards and forcing unhealthy psychological pressure on them. Until robotic packing systems are cheap and adept enough to replace human workers, Amazon only seems to be reinforcing the stereotype of the “Amabot,” a saying among employees for the highly capable and productive Amazon worker.

Amazon’s statement regarding the negative interpretations of the patent was released on GeekWire on February 5th. “The speculation about this patent is misguided,” Amazon said. “This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates. By moving equipment to associates’ wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens.”  The statement focuses on the cost-efficient benefits of the technology while not addressing the matters of additional scrutiny and strain placed on workers.

The technology is currently only a patent, but the implications it has on workplace surveillance are almost dystopian in nature. By disputing concerns that the technology could be detrimental to the work environment, Amazon underestimates the value of privacy, a right that may soon be turning into a privilege.

References

[1] Amazon. 2018. Ultrasonic Bracelet and Receiver for Detecting Position in 2D Plane. US009881276.

[2] Justia, 2018. “Amazon Patent Grants.” Accessed March 26, 2018.

[3] Boyle, Alan. 2018. “Amazon wins a pair of patents for wireless wristbands that track warehouse workers.” GeekWire, January 30, 2018.

[4] Kantor, Jodi and David Streitfeld. 2015. “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” New York Times, August 15, 2015.

[5] BBC. 2013. “Amazon Workers face ‘increased risk of mental illness’.” November 25, 2013.

[6] Rittenhouse, Lindsay. 2017. “Amazon Warehouse Employees’ Message to Jeff Bezos—We Are Not Robots.” TheStreet, September 29, 2017. 

 

 
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