Amazon.com Inc.'s plan to deploy surveillance cameras inside its delivery trucks has raised privacy concerns among some U.S. lawmakers, but legal experts say it falls within the bounds of state employment laws that allow employers to monitor workers on the job.
Amazon says the move to place artificial intelligence-powered "Driveri" cameras supplied by California transportation technology firm Netradyne in its delivery trucks is part an effort to keep drivers safer by improving driver behaviors and reducing collisions. But a group of Democratic senators, including Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are raising questions about whether the cameras could place unsafe pressure on drivers and infringe on individuals' privacy rights.
The senators have asked Amazon to respond by March 24 to written inquiries. Questions include whether Amazon intends to install the cameras in all its delivery vehicles, whether recordings will be used to evaluate a driver's performance and whether Amazon owns the video that the Driveri cameras capture.
Amazon and Netradyne did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Karolina Haraldsdottir, Amazon senior manager of last-mile safety, said in a video announcement posted to Vimeo that the Driveri quad cameras are equipped with four high-definition cameras that provide a road-facing view, a driver-facing view and two side-view cameras, "giving the system 270 degrees of coverage." The cameras, which use AI to detect unsafe driving habits, also emit audio warnings like "no stop detected" and "please slow down."
Amazon is deploying the cameras at a time when it has generated record profits during the pandemic as more consumers shop for goods online.
An Amazon delivery truck
Despite the concerns raised by federal lawmakers, Amazon is in the clear with its use of the Driveri cameras due to a fairly extensive body of state law that says employers can generally monitor their workers, particularly if they give them notice and as long as the monitoring is not in a private space like a locker room or a bathroom, said Michelle Cohen, chair of the data privacy practice at the law firm Ifrah Law.
"For decades, employees have understood, usually from language in a handbook, or some sort of form they signed upon hire, that they may be subject to monitoring at the workplace, particularly those in secure workplaces but even outside of secure workplaces," Cohen said.
Cohen also noted that citizens are fairly aware that cameras are recording footage while they are out in public.
"When we're out particularly in commercial areas, we're regularly subject to surveillance by all sorts of cameras," she said. "You go to Target, there's cameras outside. Now, people have cameras at their homes."
Chun Wright, a tech attorney in Washington, D.C., noted that the lawmakers' recent letter to Amazon is just the latest in a growing number of privacy inquiries involving the company, including over the use of cameras related to its California-based smart-doorbell maker Ring, which Amazon bought in 2018 for about $1 billion.
Sen. Markey wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2019 to raise concerns about Ring, which has a camera that records live video footage of homeowners' visitors, as well as Ring's partnerships with police departments. There is also a case pending in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in which plaintiff Michelle Wise claims Ring violated an Illinois biometrics law by collecting, storing and using biometrics of millions of individuals whose faces appear in video footage captured by Ring cameras without their consent.
Lawmakers and tech companies are trying to find the right balance with respect to using artificial intelligence and facial recognition, Wright said. The inquiries into Amazon could set the stage for more questions and formal opinions from lawmakers, potentially adding to calls for a federal framework around the use of facial recognition technology, the attorney added.
"It's the AI piece of it that people are trying to understand," Wright said. "Some advocacy groups are worried about 'how far is this going to go?' How are companies going to use it? How is law enforcement going to use it? Who will be sharing the data?"
Amazon's use of cameras also could have implications beyond its own employee surveillance.
The cameras could record a car accident next to an Amazon truck, for instance, raising questions about what law enforcement officials and insurers can access to determine who is at fault, said Sara Hawkins, a lawyer in Phoenix who works with entrepreneurs in the tech industry. If Amazon provides video footage to one party in the accident over the other, that could possibly create an unfair advantage, Hawkins said.
"It could be used as a shield and a sword by a third party if Amazon doesn't have an equitable policy of disclosing the data," she said.