Walmart Moves Closer to ‘Minority Report’ Reality

Walmart’s recent patent award, “Listening to the frontend (US010020004B2),” is demonstrative of the retail giant’s intent to continue to leverage technology to improve customer service and reduce operating expenses. At the same time, Walmart is raising the cackles of privacy advocates.

The patent, awarded in July, describes how Walmart would use “sound sensors” distributed within its stores, which would receive “sounds resulting from activity in the shopping facility” and correlate this with the activities of an employee. The purpose is to “determine based at least in part on the audio data and the indication of the employee, a performance metric for the employee.”

The patent diagrams show the sensors being installed at the point of sale (POS), the checkout lane. The audio captured would be similar in nature to what a call center records when an employee interacts with a customer. Walmart’s intent is to increase customer satisfaction, and the system will allow the company to capture:

  • Beeps – produced by a scanner
  • Bags – being pulled or placed in a cart
  • Guest conversations

Beeps and Rustling

The first two would indicate how many bags are being used and how many items. One might assume that the audio would be correlated with the POS data and thus align the number of beeps with the number of items that were rung up and the number of bags expected to be used during the transaction. The technology is also expected to signal to management the need to open additional lines for checkout based on the audio information being captured and analyzed. Though most of us have had ample experience making the same determination via visual cues of lines longer than TSA screening, this new technology allows a new way of arriving at the recommendation point.

Employee’s Voice?

The technology’s ability for Walmart to hear conversations is what has privacy advocates’ shorts in a twist.

While it allows Walmart to listen to its employees’ ability to follow the POS script, it also has the capability to capture intra-customer conversations, which may not be at all associated with the retail transaction taking place at the POS.

The patent allows for the creation of a “sound profile database” which “can store audio information such as speech recognition information and profiles for specific types of sounds (e.g., sounds associated with carts, bags, footsteps, conveyor belts, scanners, etc.).

While speech recognition can be used to identify employees at their work stations performing their duties, the assumption that the audio will also collect informal employee-to-employee conversation that may or may not be favorable to Walmart and could, hypothetically, be used to identify disgruntled employees. That might make sense, given a disgruntled employee is often more likely to break trust when compared to their peers.

The Customer is Talking

The customer’s voice hypothetically also could be cataloged and, like our smart devices are informing apps where we are physically located, our voices might be used to tell Walmart where we are within their store, conversing about their products offered for sale (or topics not having anything to do whatsoever with Walmart of the more personal nature).

“Minority Report,” a movie set in 2054, demonstrates the capabilities pervasive monitoring provides in tracking an individual’s movements and actions. One of the more famous scenes from the film was the “personal advertising” scene, in which an individual walks into a shopping center and the screens change to advertising personalized for the specific individual, replete with shout-outs of his name, “John Anderson.”

Is it difficult to imagine the ancillary use of this patented technology to also measure customers? Will Walmart be able to project on the various digital media displays unique sale opportunities being offered to the “recognized voice?” Buzzfeed asked Walmart how the company intended to use the technology, and the retail giant demurred.

The privacy question remains: How will Walmart protect the customer’s audio? Will entrance to the store be viewed as acceptance that your voice will be captured, like the current acceptance of “this store under video surveillance?” Will the correlation between location apps and the audio sensors be repurposed and sold to others? Will the audio captured talking about a given brand be provided to that brand for their purposes or otherwise sold?

Bottom line: We as consumers must assume someone is listening when out and about, because based on this patent, they soon will be.

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Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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