Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

The problem with the future is that we don't quite believe in it until we're in it.

At that point, it's too late.

As you look into your future, you know that privacy will only be achieved by living on your own island, one that somehow deflects all gamma rays emitted by Google.

Once you're there, I hope you think, just occasionally, about the employees at Walmart.

They may have their bosses eavesdropping on their every conversation, for a very devious purpose.

A patent newly won by Walmart might just make some sentient humans squirm. Especially if those sentient humans happen to work for Walmart.

Spotted first by BuzzFeed, this patent enjoys some lyrical descriptions.

It speaks of "one or more sound sensors distributed throughout at least a portion of a shopping facility and configured to receive at least sounds resulting from activity in the shopping facility."

Yes, that does sound like surveillance, doesn't it? I had the very same impression.

But wait. There's apparently a purpose to all this.

The grocery chain wants to collect audio data and "determine, based at least in part on the audio data and the indication of the employee, a performance metric for the employee."

Which does sound mightily like surveilling the employee in order to evaluate them.

The generous might offer that many customer telephone calls are recorded by companies, for, what is it they say, "quality assurance purposes." It's something like that, isn't it?

And I'm sure this Walmart system could generate useful data about certain business aspects.

Moreover, the patent does enjoy these words: 

Employee efficiency and performance can help decrease costs for a shopping facility as well as increase guest satisfaction. Tracking performance metrics for employees to ensure that the employees are performing their jobs efficiently and correctly can aid in achieving these costs savings and increases in guest satisfaction.

This all sounds as if it might, in some parallel world of trust, have good intentions.

But I still pause for human elements to ululate to the skies.

How many people perform more efficiently if they know they're being surveilled?

Yes, there are rock stars and sports stars who adore being watched. But that's a little different from your basic everyday constant spying at the grocery store.

And one can't help but get that impression here. 

I contacted Walmart to ask whether this patent is, indeed, a portent of its dark, efficient future. A spokesman told me: 

We file patents frequently but that doesn't mean the patents will actually be implemented. We're always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers. This patent is a concept that would help us gather metrics and improve the checkout process by listening to sounds produced by the bags, carts and cash registers and not intended for any other use .

Intended.

But some of the best intentions can go astray.

Of course, the system might generate interesting data about customer behavior. But it could also generate recorded conversations of customers discussing their private lives with their best friend and confidant Brad.

Or should we trust that Walmart would never, ever do anything untoward with a recording of us talking to Brad about our little, you know, problem that's become a big problem?

I don't think for a moment that Walmart is alone in considering such loopy, snoopy ideas. 

Why, not so long ago a woman sued her employer because she believed the employer's tracking app was following her 24 hours a day. (Yes, she deleted it.)

Oh, I almost forgot. The Walmart patent is called Listening to the Frontend.

I wonder, if Walmart ever installed such technology, whether it would be watching many employees' back ends as they walked out the door.

Published on: Jul 12, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.