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Amazon announces new employee tracking tech, and customers are lining up

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Amazon-powered employee tracking is coming to a warehouse, and possibly a store, near you. 

The ecommerce, logistics, and (among other things) cloud computing giant quietly previewed Tuesday new hardware and software development kits (SDK) which add machine learning and computer vision capabilities to companies’ existing surveillance camera networks. And in what should come as no surprise as companies around the world ramp up employee monitoring, customers are already champing at the bit to sic Amazon’s tech on their own workers. 

Amazon, of course, is notorious for monitoring its fulfillment center workers’ movements in excruciating detail. From social-distance tracking systems to automatic tools that keep tabs on “the rates of each individual associate’s productivity,” Amazon has a well deserved reputation for invasiveness. AWS Panorama, shown off at the AWS re:Invent conference, offers some version of that future to companies willing to cough up the cash. 

And while Amazon partially advertises the new system as allowing “you to monitor workplace safety,” corporate customers clearly have a different purpose in mind. 

That big black box.

Amazon lists several “customers” on the Panorama page, one of which includes Fender (yes, the guitar company). Michael Spandau, the senior vice president of global IT at Fender, helpfully provides a little customer testimonial. 

“With AWS Panorama and help from the Amazon Machine Learning Solutions Lab,” he is quoted as saying, “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.”

In other words, Fender plans to use this fancy tech to track how quickly its warehouse employees can assemble guitars. 

“Will the motions of employees of color, of older employees, employees with disabilities be more likely to be misread?”

Kate Rose, a digital security expert and founder of the anti-surveillance clothing line Adversarial Fashion, explained the possible dangers in the use case highlighted by Spandau. 

“We know from every other algorithmic audit of these kinds of systems that there are people for whom this kind of tracking and evaluation performs more poorly, and they are the populations already most likely to be surveilled at work and in their communities,” she wrote over Twitter direct message. “Will the motions of employees of color, of older employees, employees with disabilities be more likely to be misread or determined to be substandard or inefficient, and threaten their employment?”

To add to the mess, Amazon advertises a possible retail use case wherein store owners point an Amazon-powered surveillance network at their customers. 

“For example,” Amazon tells would be AWS Panorama customers, “you can use AWS Panarma [sic] to count customers, track their movements for heat mapping, and monitor the length of queues.”

Tracking those employees.

Tracking those employees.

Other listed customers include Parkland, a company which operates gas stations in Canada, parts of the United States, and the Caribbean. Its retail brands include Chevron, Esso, Ultramar, Superpumper, RaceTrac, Pioneer, and Fas Gas Plus. Amazon also lists BPX Energy (a division of BP America) and Cargill as AWS Panorama customers.  

According to Parkland’s senior vice president of strategic marketing and innovation, Ian White, the company intends to aim Amazon’s tech at its customers. 

SEE ALSO: People are fighting algorithms for a more just and equitable future. You can, too.

“We plan to use AWS Panorama to deploy different computer vision applications at our stores and experiment over time to strengthen our customer experience and value proposition,” he told Amazon.

Amazon says the AWS Panorama Appliance will be available for purchase in 2021 for $4,000 per device, with an additional charge of $8.33 a month per active camera stream.

So get ready: Amazon’s surveillance tech, and all which that entails, is coming for you.

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