Amazon patents wristbands to track workers’ movements

In the near-future, employees will wear tracking wristbands in the office that will know where they have gone — including bathroom breaks and if you stray too far from your workstation — and when. When employees go somewhere their bosses do not want them to be, the wristbands can alert them with a vibrating buzz. When performances reviews come up, bosses will be able to point to days they have noticed employees slacking off.

While some of us may see this future as an Orwellian nightmare, Amazon is one step closer to making this a reality for its warehouse workers. This week, the company was awarded two patents for an “ultrasonic bracelet” that will allow Amazon to monitor in real time where workers are.

Amazon patents wristband to track workers

According to the patent applications filed in 2016, the technology would use “proximity signal transmitters” placed within the warehouse and on the workers’ wrists to track movements. The ultrasonic sound pulses would transmit “haptic feedback” to workers’ wrists if they incorrectly chose an inventory bin. Justifying its technology’s existence, the patent notes that, “existing approaches for keeping track of where inventory items are stored … may require the inventory system worker to perform time consuming acts.”

An awarded patent does not guarantee an invention’s release, but it shows that Amazon is putting time and moneyed resources towards eking out every last drop of efficiency it can get from its workers. To Amazon warehouse workers, who say they face pressure to meet inventory targets quickly, this invention is a likely reality.

“They want to turn people into machines,” Max Crawford, a former Amazon warehouse worker told the New York Times. “The robotic technology isn’t up to scratch yet, so until it is, they will use human robots.”

Workplace tracking devices increasingly being used

If you think you may be spared from this tracking future because you do not work for Amazon, think again. Amazon’s patented technology joins others monitoring data about employees.

More people are ready to make themselves cyborgs for their employers. This past July, a majority of employees at Wisconsin tech company Three Square Market, willingly agreed to get microchipped for the convenience of getting snacks from the vending machine more quickly, a reported first for the United States. With the wave of their microchipped hands, they can log onto their computers and get into the building.

Humanyze, a Boston analytics company with clients like Bank of America and Deloitte, is taking the quantified self in a different direction and has developed a company badge its CEO Ben Waber calls a “Fitbit for your career.” Using sensors, motion detectors and built-in microphones, the badge can measure the speech patterns, tone, and posture within face-to-face interactions to help employers’ evaluate employees’ performance and productivity. In one Humanyze success story, Bank of America realized that it could increase productivity if it let call center workers interact more with each other during shared downtime.

“Within three or four years, every single ID badge is going to have these sensors,” Humanyze CEO Ben Waber predicted.

An employee’s individual-collected data gets anonymized and aggregated for employers, but as one volunteer who opted into using Humanyze badges put it, “It is a little bit invasive.”