Amazon Is Beefing Up Its Already Dystopian Worker Surveillance Machine
Amazon is installing high-tech cameras inside supplier-owned delivery vehicles. Workers say the cameras are a shocking invasion of privacy as well as a safety hazard.
Earlier this year, Amazon revealed plans to install high-tech surveillance cameras in its fleet of delivery vans that are now ubiquitous in neighborhoods across the United States. The cameras watch drivers as well as the road and provide real-time audio feedback. While many of these drivers work in Amazon Prime–branded vehicles, they are not Amazon employees, but rather are employed by third-party contractors called delivery-service partners (DSPs) — an arrangement that, among other benefits, limits Amazon’s liability when accidents occur.
The surveillance technology comes from Netradyne, a California-based company that uses cameras to analyze driver activity so as to provide instant direction (“please slow down,” for instance) while also storing that data to evaluate performance in line with company metrics. In a video about Driveri, Netradyne’s platform, Karolina Haraldsdottir, a senior manager of the last-mile delivery operation at Amazon, emphasizes that the cameras are meant as a safety measure, intended to reduce collisions.
The company has cited a pilot roll-out of the cameras from last year, which they say saw accidents drop by 48 percent. The installation of Driveri is in keeping with Amazon’s roll-out of similar camera monitoring among its long-haul trucking operation.
While drivers already use Mentor, an app that tracks their activity, Driveri adds cameras, which can offer additional data for metrics. Some DSPs have told drivers to turn off Mentor because they could not meet Amazon’s productivity quotas without violating safe-driving practices. There have now been several cases of DSPs shutting down entirely after finding Amazon’s demands and conditions to be “intolerable, unconscionable, unsafe, and most importantly, unlawful,” as a letter from an attorney for one such DSP put it.
Indeed, Amazon’s policies are startlingly exacting, dictating that DSPs impose the company’s standards on details as minute as the state of drivers’ fingernails. Such is Amazon’s business model: exacting surveillance and exploitation of workers, limited liability for the company.
“Our intention in introducing this technology is to set up drivers for success,” says Haraldsdottir in the video. As she explains, certain behaviors trigger Driveri to upload recorded footage and emit an audio alert to a driver: failure to stop at a stop sign, following someone too closely, speeding, and distracted driving (there are another twelve behaviors that will trigger uploading, but no audio warning — U-turns and driver drowsiness among them). The cameras record 100 percent of the time, and can only be manually disabled when the ignition is off.
So, how is the roll-out of Driveri going?
“My direct supervisor mentioned that ‘a bunch of people’ said they were going to quit when the cameras were installed,” says one delivery driver based in Washington state. His DSP has just begun introducing the cameras into their fleet.
Should that happen, it would be far from the first case of drivers quitting over the installation of the technology.
“I think the cameras are needlessly invasive and completely unnecessary, especially given the other layers of surveillance and scrutiny placed upon us by Amazon,” he says. “Most, if not all, of my coworkers feel the same way.”
The drivers at the company were asked to sign a video-technology agreement earlier this year to pave the way for the cameras. The form appeared on Flex — the app Amazon drivers use to scan packages and follow GPS routes — without warning or discussion about it from the company.
Drivers’ concerns about the technology are multiple. First, there is the lack of privacy. Drivers cannot turn off the cameras while the ignition is on, meaning Driveri can see everything they do in the vehicle.
One driver told Business Insider that she wears adult diapers — an inability to find time to use the restroom is a frequent issue among Amazon’s delivery workforce — and worries about the camera capturing her changing into another one during her shift.
Then there are the practical concerns. Some of the workers drive step vans, which are particularly loud vehicles — a noisy engine, rattling doors. They say it’s hard to hear the device over the noise, and note that hard-of-hearing drivers won’t receive Driveri’s feedback either.
Additionally, there is the matter of new metrics for evaluating drivers’ performance. The data collected by Netradyne will help rank drivers, but that data will be released weekly, by which time it is hard for workers to correct suspected errors.
As one driver told Business Insider, “I get a ‘distracted driver’ notification even if I’m changing the radio station or drinking water.”
Drivers mention the difficulty of factoring unique situations — an animal sprinting into the road and causing them to slam on their brakes, for example — into the scores. They say such incidents are penalized on Mentor, and that there is little reason to suspect Driveri will be any different.
“I am now driving around with an inscrutable black box that surveils me and determines whether I keep my job,” says the delivery driver in Washington. While he says he sees how, in theory, some of the metrics are justifiable — “you don’t want your drivers Tokyo Drifting through neighborhoods” — in reality, aggregated on top of the layers of surveillance to which drivers already feel subject, it is “stifling, unnecessary, and ridiculous.”
“We’re all just out here trying to do our best, but we also have to contend with knowing that each week, computers spit out metrics for us which require multiple pages to properly display, and a drop in those abstract numbers could lose us jobs,” he says. “All I want to do is deliver my damn packages and go home, man.”