Amazon plans to sell companies a technology to identify when staff are not wearing face masks or following socially distancing.

Beyond the pandemic, the system could also be utilized to track obedience of other workplace rules or to monitor the public, for example, to check the number of customers line up in a store. It involves retrofitting a box to installed security cameras that can then draw on off-the-shelf AI apps.

But privacy campaigners have raised questions.

Remote working has already led to a surge in the use of software that inspect on employees, but Amazon's new technology is focused on tracking people and products in factories, shops and other traditional workplaces.

Automated Inspections

The Amazon Web Services Panorama appliance plugs into internet protocol (IP) cameras - a benchmark of digital video cameras used by a huge range of companies on their sites.

It can robotize inspection tasks, such as identifying manufacturing snag or tracking the movement of barcodes and labels. But the tool can also be applied to people. For instance, in a retail shop, it could count the number of customers, track their movements and check the length of queues, Amazon has suggested.

In a factory or other workplace, the same tech can be used to monitor employees and get notified instantly about any effective issues or hazardous situations so you can take appropriate action, the company said.

In the promotional event for the product, Fender guitars says it uses the product to track how long it takes for an associate to complete each task in the assembly of a guitar.

The Financial Times reports that Amazon Web Services Panorama can identify vehicles being driven in places they are not supposed to be. Some major companies are already trying out the system, including Siemens and Deloitte. It is still, however, in screening, and not yet widely feasible.

A monitoring revolution

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), the umbrella group for UK unions, this week printed its report into the use of AI-powered tools used by employers.

The announcement of this new monitoring technology is another lead of how this uprising at work is picking up pace, said policy officer Mary Towers. But she warned that it must not gloss over workers' needs.

In our report, we warn about the possibly negative effects that invasive technology of this type can have on workers' well-being, right to privacy, data protection rights and the right not be hostile to. 

Polling suggested that workers were already worried about CCTV cameras being used to monitor performance when they were supposed to have been installed for security purposes, she said.

Silkie Carlo, director of privacy group Big Brother Watch, said robotized monitoring of workplaces hardly results in favour for employees.

It is a great shame that social distancing has been soared up by Amazon as yet another excuse for data collection and surveillance, she said.

Amazon has already faced scrutiny over how its warehouse employees are surveillanced. In September, a report from a US research group said Amazon used large-scale worker surveillance to limit union organising activity. And the company has skirmishes with some of its employees who have accused it of treating them like robots.

This week, Microsoft apologised for allowing individuals' activity to be monitored by their employers through a productivity score drafted to give high-level oversights. After an outcry, Microsoft removed individual user names from the product.

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