Late last year, American retailer Walmart, had a patent granted for a listening system designed specifically for their retail stores. At the moment the company hasn’t announced any plans to roll out the listening system, but if it ever does it could make many employees and shoppers feel very uneasy.

The prospective system is effectively a surveillance system that could be used in various different scenarios. In one use case, it could be used as an anti-theft solution, designed to listen to the rustling of bags and beeps from the tills, the system could check the number of items in a transaction and the number of bags used is what’s expected. However, other use case scenarios are much more intrusive.

Shot of a mature man shopping in the cold produce section of a supermarket

Another reported use case would be using the listening system to monitor how employees are interacting with customers. This would involve the system listening to everyone all the time, monitoring how customers are being greeted, what sort of language is being used and whether queries are being dealt with successfully. Walmart could also use the system to monitor what customers are saying about products in real-time, potentially providing invaluable market research data for the company, but this ultimately comes at the cost of customers & employees privacy.

The monitoring of customers and employees isn’t new. Amazon is using monitoring systems to track everyone in their stores while testing cashier-less retail stores for the past couple of years, but this new patent shows that it could soon be more widespread.

The continual development of surveillance systems like Walmart’s, highlights the importance of not discussing private details outside of secure locations. You never know who’s listening.