As Amazon continues its quest to shrink delivery times and add warehouses in Illinois, the e-commerce behemoth is eyeing technology that could track the movements of its workers' hands as they fulfill orders.
The company recently won patents for wristbands that could be used as part of an inventory system, communicating with equipment in warehouses and nudging employees via vibrations if, for example, they were about to place items in the wrong bins. But in a world where the legal limits on gathering and using people's data remain largely undefined, use of such devices could quickly turn nefarious, some experts say.
The concerns tied to such a device range from the potential for discrimination to data security risks for the company's employees, which number more than 8,000 in the Chicago area.
Amazon waited almost two years for the patents to be approved, and it's unclear if it ever plans on deploying the technology in its warehouses. The company said it does not track or intend to track its employees' locations, but the concept still sends chills down the spines of the privacy-conscious. And if it doesn't, some experts say, it should.
"Employers are increasingly treating their employees like robots," said Lori Andrews, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law. Part of the problem is that workers rarely realize it, she said.
Some companies hand out Fitbits as part of wellness programs, but those are collecting data on employees, Andrews said. A vending machine company in Wisconsin offered last summer to implant microchips in its employees hands to ease daily tasks like buying snacks or using the copy machine, the company has said.
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If an employer is hacked, information on workers' movements or other habits could be stolen, Andrews said. The data gleaned from a company-issued device also could end up in insurers' hands. "You might have trouble getting life insurance if they learn you bought a lot of Cheetos," Andrews said.
Amazon says the wristband technology, for which the Seattle-based company was awarded patents at the end of January, could improve the work of warehouse employees and make them safer.
"Every day at companies around the world, employees use handheld scanners to check inventory and fulfill orders," spokeswoman Angie Quennell said in an email. "This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve this process for our fulfillment associates."
The scanning devices Amazon's warehouse employees use now are similar to those used in supermarkets or department stores, Quennell said. "We do not use GPS to monitor people's location in our fulfillment centers or for any other purpose," she said.