Amazon AI Cameras Prompt “Mobile Surveillance” Privacy Row
The fact that Amazon has started using AI-powered cameras in delivery vans that constantly record footage of drivers has led to accusations of mobile corporate surveillance.
The Driveri combined video recording and AI cameras have been introduced to the cab of Amazon delivery vans to record drivers with the stated intention of helping to improve driving. The system has four separate HD cameras comprising of a road-facing view, a driver-facing view and two side views. The system films/records all the time but only uploads footage if one of 16 different factors (safety triggers) is observed. For example, this could be drowsiness, speeding or sharp braking.
The system can also issue verbal warnings to drivers based upon the detection of certain safety triggers. For example, it has been reported that a driver yawning prompts the system to pull over and take a break for 15 minutes.
The system has no audio or live-view functionality, and the drivers can turn off the cameras facing them only while their vehicle is stopped. As soon as the vehicle moves, however, this starts the cameras working again.
The footage from the cameras is sent to Amazon’s last-mile trust and safety team to be shared and used for coaching by the driver’s Delivery Service Partner (DSP) program, and also for any investigations (e.g. theft or property damage).
Amazon says that the cameras are intended to support drivers in being safer on the road and in being able to better handle incidents if they happen, thereby being able to “set up drivers for success”.
Critics, on the other hand (of which there are many), have generally made the point that the cameras represent an unwelcome form of surveillance and invasion of privacy for the drivers and for the wider public.
For example, digital rights advocacy group ‘Fight for the Future’ Tweeted “Amazon’s plan to install artificial intelligence-powered cameras on its fleet of thousands of delivery vehicles amounts to the largest expansion of corporate surveillance in human history. We’ll be launching a campaign this week to stop this nightmare.” Evan Greer of Fight For the Future Tweeted that “every Amazon vehicle will now also be an Amazon surveillance camera. And right now there are essentially no laws in place to govern what Amazon can do with all that footage once they collect it” and that “Basically this means any time you see an Amazon delivery vehicle in your neighbourhood, it will be watching and recording you. The potential for abuse is staggering. This turns every single Amazon delivery vehicle into a mobile surveillance machine. Orwellian is an understatement.”
Also, the Director of the UK’s Big Brother Watch privacy group, Silkie Carlo, has been quoted as saying that “Amazon’s appetite for surveillance knows no bounds. This intrusive, constant monitoring of employees creates an oppressive, distrustful, and disempowering work environment that completely undermines workers’ rights”. The GMB union have also expressed similar concerns about the use of the cameras and there have been reports that Amazon Drivers in a private Reddit group have expressed fears about what could happen to them if they made driving mistakes that were noted by the cameras.
Amazon has also been on the negative side of the news over a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint in the US, alleging that Amazon’s Flex program took almost $62 million in tips from its drivers between 2016 and 2019.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
For Amazon, using cameras to film drivers to improve performance and settle disputes may seem like a practical solution but there is clearly a great deal of suspicion and a lack of trust about Amazon and its motives among privacy groups, unions, drivers, and others. Rights such as privacy, together with not having to feel like big brother is always watching you, is something that most workers value. Amazon, however, is a very large and powerful company that has become even more powerful during the pandemic and it is clearly going to become much more difficult and costly for workers, unions, rights/privacy groups and others to stand up to Amazon and hold them to account, particularly when, even though the story represents bad PR, it is unlikely to hit Amazon sales. Nevertheless, this kind of story is extremely negative and is likely to attract public sympathy even if it doesn’t affect their loyalty and now it remains to be seen how Amazon will respond in rolling out this program that sounds like something it had committed to going ahead with.