In a short CCTV video, a clerk at a small convenience store can be seen taking a bottle of coffee from a cooler and drinking it. When he returns to the cash register, an unseen person's voice emits from a speaker on the ceiling and interrogates him about whether he scanned and paid for the item.
In another video, a cashier is standing behind the counter talking to someone just out of frame. There’s a 'ding' sound, and the voice from above questions the cashier about who the other man is—he’s there to give the cashier a ride at the end of his shift—then orders the man to stand on the other side of the counter.
The videos are just a few examples that Washington-based Live Eye Surveillance uses to demonstrate its flagship product: a surveillance camera system that keeps constant watch over shops and lets a remote human operator intervene whenever they see something they deem suspicious. For enough money—$399 per month according to one sales email Motherboard viewed—a person in Karnal, India will watch the video feed from your business 24/7. The monitors “act as a virtual supervisor for the sites, in terms of assuring the safety of the employees located overseas and requesting them to complete assigned tasks,” according to a job posting on the company's website.
Live Eye is one of many companies profiting from the increasing adoption of workplace surveillance tools during the pandemic, which human rights experts say corporations have exploited to introduce a wide array of spy tools in the name of safety.
“We’re using insecurity about the risk of robbery as an excuse to target workers,” Eva Blum-Dumontet, a senior researcher at Privacy International, told Motherboard. “This is really an excuse to reframe how we’re working. Essentially what’s happening with workplace surveillance is employers trying to keep track of their employees to make sure they match their idea of productivity. This is very toxic for the mental health of employees.”
Live Eye Surveillance did not respond to a request for comment.
On its website, the company claims several major corporations as customers, including 7-Eleven, Shell, Dairy Queen, and Holiday Inn. Many of those businesses are franchised, and it isn’t clear from Live Eye’s materials whether the corporations have purchased the surveillance systems or if they’ve been bought by individual franchise owners.
A former 7-Eleven field consultant who oversaw multiple stores told Motherboard he was concerned when a store owner showed them Live Eye Surveillance’s promotional videos. The consultant, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their contacts still with the company, said that the surveillance system is a “solution in search of a problem,” because employee theft and shoplifting actually cost 7-Eleven franchise owners very little.
Even worse, the former field consultant said, the particular form of surveillance Live Eye is selling could actually be putting store workers in danger.
In one of the sample videos Live Eye sends potential customers, two black-clad robbers, one carrying an assault rifle, run into what appears to be a 7-Eleven store and force the clerk behind the counter. As the clerk starts to open the cash register, the Live Eye system dings and a voice informs the robbers that the police have been called. They run out of the store.
“That’s how someone is going to get killed,” the former field consultant said. “You don’t startle someone with an assault rifle. That violates 7-Eleven policy. There’s a reason why the silent alarm is silent” at banks and other businesses.
7-Eleven did not respond to Motherboard’s questions about whether it condones the use of Live Eye’s systems. The company did provide a statement saying: “7-Eleven, Inc. cares deeply about the safety of our associates and customers. We provide every 7-Eleven store with a base security system that includes CCTV and alarms, however, independent franchise owners can install their own system on top of what is provided."
The pandemic has driven the spread of workplace surveillance tools for both blue and white collar workers, Blum-Dumontet said, but it has a disproportionate impact on low-paid employees.
“There are a lot of people who have lost their jobs, a lot of people who don’t have much choice whether to accept a job or not,” she said. “This is why employers are getting away with opting for these forms of surveillance that take a real toll on employees.”