Amazon Wristbands Could Track Workers’ Hand Movements

Amazon is eyeing tech that could track the hand motions of its workers in an effort to become more efficient, reports AJC.

Recently, the company earned patents for wristbands that work as part of the inventory system, and using vibrations to nudge employees if they make a mistake such as misplacing an item in the wrong bin. This development is part of an ongoing effort to shrink delivery times.

What remains unknown is the legal dimensions of the data these devices would obtain, who would have access and the risks to the 8,000 employees in the e-commerce giant’s Chicago location, should a breach occur in that data’s security.

It took two year’s for Amazon’s patents to be approved, and the extent to which it will actually be deployed in warehouses remains unclear as well.

Those who are privacy conscious are still wary, despite assurances from Amazon that it will not log its employee’s locations. Meanwhile, experts tend to agree with the hesitant parties.

“Employers are increasingly treating their employees like robots,” Lori Andrews, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law said. In some cases, she said, employees do not even realize it.

Andrews also said that some employees are handing out Fitbits as part of a health and wellness program, but these collect data on employees as well. For example, a Wisconsin vending machine company offered to plant microchips in the hands of its employees to make using the copy machine easier, the company said.

Andrews explained that a hack could mean the information regarding the habits or motions of workers could be snatched. Insurers could make certain decisions using the data as well.

“You might have trouble getting life insurance if they learn you bought a lot of Cheetos,” Andrews said.

“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.”  She said these scanning devices are similar to those used in supermarkets or department stores. “We do not use GPS to monitor people’s location in our fulfillment centers or for any other purpose,” Quennell said.

The patent Amazon received for its wristband includes ultrasonic tracking and radio frequency, but no GPS technology. A wristband with a radio frequency, similar to Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, could be used to nudge the hands of workers in the proper direction of a bin with signals from the antenna in warehouses.

Retail stores and advertising have made use of ultrasonic tracking. For example, beacon technology in a sweater rack can send a coupon for a sweater to a customer’s phone while they browse, or alert them to new deals. Amazon’s wristband patent describes similar communication through warehouse transmitters.

“Putting the wrong box in a particular place can have cascading effects,” Romit Roy Choudhury, a computer engineering professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said. “Being able to track these things and give an alert on your wrist saying that you put it in the wrong place, I think, is very important.”

Concerns over discrimination are real – such as tracking if a woman is taking longer bathroom breaks than her colleagues, or if a disabled associate moves less quickly, according to Paula Branter, senior adviser at employee rights organization Workplace Fairness.

Branter also pointed out that other industries would adopt the technology in order to stay competitive with Amazon. Branter also pointed out that employees may have fewer options than it would appear.

“Everybody wants those Amazon jobs,” Brantner said. “If you don’t want to wear the wristband, someone else will.”