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February 9th, 2018 at 11:14 am

If workers slack off the wristband will know. (And Amazon has a patent for it.)

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Employees at an Amazon warehouse in Carteret, N.J. The e-commerce giant has been known to experiment in-house with new technology before selling it worldwide.CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

LONDON — What if your employer made you wear a wristband that tracked your every move, and that even nudged you via vibrations when it judged that you were doing something wrong?

What if your supervisor could identify every time you paused to scratch or fidget, and for how long you took a bathroom break?

What may sound like dystopian fiction could become a reality for Amazon warehouse workers around the world. The company has won two patents for such a wristband, though it was unclear if Amazon planned to actually manufacture the tracking device and have employees wear it.

The online retail giant, which plans to build a second headquarters and recently shortlisted 20 potential host cities for it, has also been known to experiment in-house with new technology before selling it worldwide.

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Amazon, which rarely discloses information on its patents, could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.

But the patent disclosure goes to the heart about a global debate about privacy and security. Amazon already has a reputation for a workplace culture that thrives on a hard-hitting management style, and has experimented with how far it can push white-collar workers in order to reach its delivery targets.

Privacy advocates, however, note that a lot can go wrong even with everyday tracking technology. On Monday, the tech industry was jolted by the discovery that Strava, a fitness app that allows users to track their activities and compare their performance with other people running or cycling in the same places, had unwittingly highlighted the locations of United States military bases and the movements of their personnel in Iraq and Syria.

The patent applications, filed in 2016, were published in September, and Amazon won them this week, according to GeekWire, which reported the patents’ publication on Tuesday.

In theory, Amazon’s proposed technology would emit ultrasonic sound pulses and radio transmissions to track where an employee’s hands were in relation to inventory bins, and provide “haptic feedback” to steer the worker toward the correct bin.

The aim, Amazon says in the patent, is to streamline “time consuming” tasks, like responding to orders and packaging them for speedy delivery. With guidance from a wristband, workers could fill orders faster.

Critics say such wristbands raise concerns about privacy and would add a new layer of surveillance to the workplace, and that the use of the devices could result in employees being treated more like robots than human beings.

Current and former Amazon employees said the company already used similar tracking technology in its warehouses and said they would not be surprised if it put the patents into practice.

Max Crawford, a former Amazon warehouse worker in Britain, said in a phone interview, “After a year working on the floor, I felt like I had become a version of the robots I was working with.”

He described having to process hundreds of items in an hour — a pace so extreme that one day, he said, he fell over from dizziness.

“There was no time to go to the loo,” he said, using the British slang for toilet. “You had to process the items in seconds and then move on. If you didn’t meet targets, you were fired.”

He worked back and forth at two Amazon warehouses for more than two years and then quit in 2015 because of health concerns, he said: “I got burned out.”

Mr. Crawford agreed that the wristbands might save some time and labor, but he said the tracking was “stalkerish” and feared that workers might be unfairly scrutinized if their hands were found to be “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“They want to turn people into machines,” he said. “The robotic technology isn’t up to scratch yet, so until it is, they will use human robots.”

Many companies file patents for products that never see the light of day. And Amazon would not be the first employer to push boundaries in the search for a more efficient, speedy work force. Companies are increasingly introducing artificial intelligence into the workplace to help with productivity, and technology is often used to monitor employee whereabouts.

One company in London is developing artificial intelligence systems to flag unusual workplace behavior, while another used a messaging application to track its employees.

In Wisconsin, a technology company called Three Square Market offered employees an opportunity to have microchips implanted under their skin in order, it said, to be able to use its services seamlessly.

Initially, more than 50 out of 80 staff members at its headquarters in River Falls, Wis., volunteered.

 

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