Walmart’s New Audio Surveillance Patent


Walmart, America’s largest retailer has now patented a type of surveillance technology that will allow it to listen in on their customers and employees. In essence, it would be used to “spy” on their customers and or workers by receiving audio data.

People are questioning what the recordings of conversations would be used for, and if it is even legal to use in some stores. Sam Lester, consumer privacy counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington D.C., told CBS News that this is a very bad idea. “If they do decide to implement this technology, the first thing we would want and expect is to know which privacy expectations are in place”.

Walmart’s patent filing states that the device, or “sound sensors” would focus on small details of the shopping and checkout experience. This means focusing on the beeps from item scanners and the moving of plastic bags. However, they are also capable to pick up conversations. This could be between workers, customers, or worker and customer exchanges together.

Walmart’s director of corporate communications, Ragan Dickens, told CBS they have “made it perfectly clear in the patent that all sounds will be picked up, including voice”. Though he also assured that they have made the intent of the technology “clear”.

The patent, which was filed Tuesday, explains that the sensors are intended to be “distributed through at least a portion of a shopping facility” where it will collect data and create a “performance metric” for Walmart workers. It would pick up on things like the number of items scanned, how many bags had been used, how long shoppers are waiting in line, and the employee-customer interaction. “Listening to the Frontend”, the patent that is filing for the program, says “A need exists for ways to capture the sounds resulting from people in the shopping facility and determine performance of employees based on those sounds”.

The audio would also assist in cutting item costs and improving the customer shopping experience. As equally important, its intention is to ensure that the employees are efficiently doing their jobs.

Dickens also confirmed that the audio would mostly be reviewed by computers versus people, and that it would not be analyzing the words that it picks up. However, the filing mentions that a performance metric might be “based on the content of the conversation”. An example is: determining if the workers are following their set greetings with customers.

As of now, the specific criteria for the evaluation of employee recordings is unclear. Several other specific details about the proposal are unclear right now; including how long said recordings will be kept on file, and if outside parties can access them or not.

Walmart’s newly patented system may also be illegal in states that have two-party consent laws. This makes the recording of audio of another person without their consent illegal. Walmart currently operates in all 50 states nationwide, 12 of which have two party-consent laws. Lester points out places of concern in saying, “shoppers are not going to expect their conversations will be recorded”. This poses a problem for the new software.

Dickens also said there has not yet been discussions on how the sensors would work through the different states. He said, “I can assure you if the concept became a reality, we would comply with the state and local laws”.

He claimed that employees would be notified of the sensors prior to installation. If the company moves forward and implements the system, these guidelines will all be outlined in the patent.

They say that the frequently file patents but do not alway implement them. “We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers”. Details involving the potential cost of the new system were not available since Walmart only currently has this as a concept.

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