Increasingly intelligent surveillance systems record every second and keystroke of many workers' days.


Surveillance cameras in a Dunkin Donuts are highlighted in pink. Image: Megan Garber.

Surveillance technology isn't just for the FBI and local law enforcement. Corporations see all kinds of potential for combining cheap recording equipment with other types of data collection.

For example, fast food joints, or "quick service restaurants," as they are known in the trade, lose up to seven percent of sales to employee theft, according to the National Restaurant Association. Now, these retailers are fighting back with surveillance systems that allow them to keep track of their employees every move and punch of the register. Already, 90 percent of retailers monitor their staffs with video cameras, but combining the visuals with data from the register makes these systems much more powerful.

"The earlier use of video as a loss prevention tool meant spending hours reviewing footage in order to identify possible culprits," a whitepaper from March Networks, a maker of retail surveillance equipment explains. "Newer video surveillance systems correlate transaction data directly with associated video clips, while the latest business intelligence tools tag certain types of transactions which are most often linked to fraudulent activity."

One example, which I spotted in the March/April issue of the trade magazine Connected World, comes to us courtesy of Dunkin Donuts. After standardizing its point-of-sale systems across thousands of stores, they decided to employ one of these "loss-prevention solutions." Here's how it works, according to Connected World's article:

By integrating the POS front-of-house system with a loss-prevention system from March Networks, franchisees can search video of employees conducting order/sales transactions when they suspect theft. Managers can look up videos based on specific search criteria, and then view the videos as well as the dynamic keystrokes [the employees entered]. "This is a very powerful tool to reduce theft in restaurants," Sheehan explains. "We have seen savings between 2-13 percent of sales."

To translate: if managers think someone is giving away free food or stealing from the till, every second of his or her workday can be reviewed for anomalies. By matching up the keystrokes with the video, managers could detect things like slipping cash into their pockets or the like.

It's not just fast food joints. All kinds of businesses are taking similar actions. A convenience store chain, Kum & Go, purchased a similar system from March Networks and described their experience with it in a whitepaper the company released. For a gas station, when someone fills up their tank but then drives off without paying, it's a problem. But it could also be a managerial issue, too. How can you be sure that the person working the register didn't take the money and then just say that a car drove off? According to Kum & Go, their surveillance system now allows them to see that latter process in action. "Well see the clerk pocket the money and hit the drive-off key," a Kum & Go manager said. "We always knew this happened, but we could never prove it."

All those little things that retail employees do? They're open to algorithmic and video inspection. It's a bad time to be an immature teenager working at Dunkin Donuts.

There's nothing wrong with that, per se. Of course companies want to reduce the number of employees who steal from them. But some part of me squirms at this pervasive and increasingly intelligent monitoring. Would I really want my boss to have always-on recordings not just of my body but my keystrokes? Would you?

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