Vice’s technology publication, Motherboard, has found a secret program used by Amazon to spy on its independently contracted Flex Delivery drivers.
Amazon Flex drivers are the staffers who deliver Amazon packages and Whole Foods groceries in more than 50 US states as well as globally. A report by Motherboard found that Amazon had been keeping tabs on these workers by observing and recording their social media posts, including those in closed Facebook groups.
After the company posted a job listing – supposedly “in error” – for two intelligence analysts to track “labor organizing threats” within the company, Motherboard was able to access internal documents, reports, and an online social media monitoring tool which they say allowed Amazon to sophisticatedly and secretly spy on its workers.
The social media monitoring tool and reports generated by it were left exposed on the domain www.sharkandink.com, which has no obvious ties to Amazon, and the tool does not use traditional Amazon infrastructure. But the files and reports left exposed have direct links to Amazon, and after this article was published, Amazon confirmed that the tool and the surveillance reports were generated by the company.
The team monitoring such social media posts are known as the “Advocacy Operations Social Listening Team,” and, according to Motherboard, “are supposed to ‘capture posts’ written by Amazon Flex drivers, categorize them, investigate them (or flag them for investigation), and add them to a report.”
The tool has various categories for certain issues and complaints, from “App Issue” to “Media Coverage” to “DP [Delivery Partner] feedback,” which themselves contain a multitude of subcategories and span some 72 closed Facebook groups, open subreddits, and Twitter key words from across Spain, the UK and the USA (Motherboard provided a list of groups in their report).
Speaking to Motherboard, an Amazon spokesperson said:
We have a variety of ways to gather driver feedback and we have teams who work every day to ensure we’re advocating to improve the driver experience, particularly through hearing from drivers directly. Upon being notified, we discovered one group within our delivery team that was aggregating information from closed groups. While they were trying to support drivers, that approach doesn’t meet our standards, and they are no longer doing this as we have other ways for drivers to give us their feedback.
But although Amazon appeared to come clean to Motherboard, it was also clear that this was a secret surveillance operation.
A login page included in the files says “the information related to different posts reported out from various social forums are classified. DO NOT SHARE without proper authentication. Most of the Post/Comment screenshots within the site are from closed Facebook groups. It will have a detrimental effect if it falls within the reach of any of our Delivery partners. DO NOT SHARE without proper authentication.”
Complaints and issues are often reported to specific Amazon employees and some are escalated to a senior management team. The documents accessed by Motherboard included employees’ first names, pictures, Amazon chat handles, and an “owners” page, which Motherboard was able to cross-reference with Amazon employee LinkedIn pages, confirming the connection between this tool and the company.
While it seems a fairly harmless way to tackle issues directly affecting contracted workers who don’t receive the same benefits as Amazon employees – despite, you know, the obvious obstruction of privacy – there is a hefty focus on labor and strike organizing as well as negative press surrounding Amazon.
But other posts identify Flex workers who posted negative media articles, “complaints” from drivers and the perceived sentiment of their posts (“positive” or “complaint”). Categories of possible posts Amazon wants to know about include news articles where “Warehouse employees [are] complaining about the poor working condition,” “Strikes/Protests: DPs planning for any strike or protest against Amazon,” and a category called “DP approached by researchers – DPs being approached by researchers for their project/thesis.” Other categories are designed to identify posts where workers are “complaining about Amazon taking away their tips,” and any bots or gaming of the system drivers are using to get more shifts.
Motherboard also found that those intelligence analyst listings focussed heavily on organized labor and stated they would need to keep an eye on sensitive and confidential topics “including labor organizing threats against the company.”
Since Motherboard published their investigation, the documents and reports they had been able to access were taken offline. Go and read the full investigation here.