For this Amazon van driver, AI surveillance was the final straw

by Avi Asher-Schapiro | @AASchapiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 19 March 2021 12:02 GMT

A worker in a face mask walks by trucks parked at an Amazon facility as the global coronavirus outbreak continued in Bethpage on Long Island in New York, U.S., March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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For Vic, an Amazon driver since 2019, the company's decision to install a four-lens, AI-powered camera in his van was the final indignity. This month, he quit

*Amazon is rolling out AI-powered cameras in its branded delivery vans

*Some workers say the cameras violate their privacy and worry who gets their data

*Five U.S. Senators have written to Amazon seeking an explanation

By Avi Asher-Schapiro

March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Vic started delivering packages for Amazon in 2019, he enjoyed it - the work was physical, he liked the autonomy, and it let him explore new neighborhoods in Denver, Colorado.

But Vic, who asked to be referred to by his first name for fear of retaliation, did not like the sensation that he was constantly under surveillance. 

At first, it was Amazon’s “Mentor” app that constantly monitored his driving, phone use and location, generating a score for bosses to evaluate his performance on the road.

“If we went over a bump, the phone would rattle, the Mentor app would log that I used the phone while driving, and boom, I’d get docked,” he said.

Then, Amazon started asking him to post “selfies” before each shift on Amazon Flex, another app he had to install. 

“I had already logged in with my keycard at the beginning of the shift, and now they want a photo? It was too much," he said.

The final indignity, he said, was Amazon's decision to install a four-lens, AI-powered camera in delivery vehicles that would record and analyse his face and body the entire shift. 

This month, Vic put in his two-week notice and quit, ahead of a March 23 deadline for all workers at his Denver dispatch location to sign release forms authorising Amazon to film them and collect and store their biometric information.

“It was both a privacy violation, and a breach of trust,” he said. “And I was not going to stand for it.”

The camera systems, made by U.S.-based firm Netradyne, are part of a nationwide effort by Amazon to address concerns over accidents involving its increasingly ubiquitous delivery vans.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that access to the footage was limited, and video would only be uploaded after an unsafe driving incident was detected.

Albert Fox Cahn, who runs the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project - a privacy organisation - said the Amazon cameras were part of a worrying, new trend.

"As cameras get cheaper and artificial intelligence becomes more powerful, these invasive tracking systems are increasingly the norm," he said.

ARCHIVE PICTURE: Amazon packages are pushed onto ramps leading to delivery trucks by a robotic system as they travel on conveyor belts inside of an Amazon fulfillment center on Cyber Monday in Robbinsville, New Jersey, U.S., December 2, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

YAWNING MAN

The cameras are equipped with sensors that pick up if a driver yawns, drives without a seatbelt, or appears distracted, according to a product description posted online.

If any such behaviours are detected, the camera records the incident and shares it with the dispatcher.

Vic’s local delivery hub, an independently-owned Amazon contractor that cannot be identified to protect the driver's anonymity, was chosen to help pilot the project more than a year ago, Vic said.

At the time, Vic told his supervisors he thought the devices were intrusive and insulting, sending the message that he could only do a good job if closely observed.

Up until this month, he had largely been able to request vans without the cameras installed.

But there were a few times he did drive a van equipped with the cameras. At the end of his shift his supervisor showed him all the images that had been captured.

Each time the camera's AI detected an anomaly in Vic's behavior - a yawn, a glance at his phone - it started recording, and saving the footage.

Vic felt violated.

“We are all out there to do a job. And if they don’t trust us to do the job -if they feel like they need to be watching us 24-7, why did they hire us? Why are we on the payroll?”

Eventually, his DSP told Vic that cameras were going to become mandatory company policy for all vans all the time, and he would have to agree to be filmed, or seek other work.

On March 2, he got a notification in his Amazon Flex App that he would now have to sign a consent form to allow Amazon to film him at work, as cameras were going in all vans. 

He had until March 23 to sign up.

When Vic read the documents, he was disturbed to read that  Amazon reserved the right to “share the information....with Third-party service providers” and “Amazon group affiliates”.

That struck Vic as odd; Fox Cahn saw the hand of lawyers.

"These policies look like they were written by expensive lawyers with the sole focus of protecting Amazon's bottom line - not the privacy of their workers," said the privacy expert.

"The way they are written basically reserves the right for Amazon to do just about anything they want with this data." 

ARCHIVE PICTURE: An Amazon delivery person walks in Times Square following the outbreak of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

IN SENATORS' SIGHTS

The policies also caught the attention of U.S. lawmakers.

In a letter to Amazon on March 3, five Democratic senators raised concerns about the cameras' privacy implications.

They also asked Amazon to “identify any third parties with which Amazon has shared or plans to share” their footage.

Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, one of the signatories,  told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that Amazon had not replied.

“Protecting safety on our roads is vital, but so is protecting the rights of workers," he said by email. "The surveillance system Amazon is deploying in its vehicle fleet raises serious concerns about privacy and worker oversight."

The senators echoed another concerns of Vic’s: that there was no way to opt out of the surveillance, even for drivers with stellar safety records.

“I was the top driver at my dispatch,” Vic said, noting that he had no accidents in two years of work. “If Amazon wanted to improve safety, there are a lot of other things they could do."

He worried the cameras were a way to put the burden of safety onto drivers, instead of investing in better training.

On online Reddit forums frequented by Amazon drivers, dozens have complained about the cameras and their lack of choice.

Ultimately, Vic says he was forced to prioritise his privacy or his livelihood, calling it "a sort of coercion”.

He has found another job with another delivery company that does not use cameras - but worries about his friends at Amazon.

“I wanted to show up and do my job -- not to be watched all the time -- and that was not an option," he said. "It’s not a choice anyone should have to make.”

Related stories:

'Dystopia Prime:' Amazon AI van cameras spark surveillance concerns

Under watch: Indian city workers protest digital surveillance

As bosses embrace tech to monitor remote workers, can privacy endure?

(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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