Privacy at the Margins/Refractive Surveillance: Monitoring Customers to Manage Workers

Article Source: International Journal of Communication, Vol. 12, pp. 1166-1188, 2018
Publication Date:
Time to Read: 2 minute read
Written By:

 Solon Barocas

Solon Barocas



Customer information collected by retailers is often used to manage workers. Often, retailer’s use of this data harms workers.


Policy Relevance:

Policymakers should consider the effect of data collection on groups other than the target of the surveillance.


Key Takeaways:
  • “Refractive surveillance” occurs when information is collected about one group to facilitate control over another; for example, retailers’ collection of customer data facilitates control over workers.
  • Low-wage workers’ economic status may depend on information that retailers collect about more privileged groups.
  • Brick and mortar stores track customers for two reasons:
    • Retailers try to address the knowledge gap between workers and customers (who may know more about products and prices than workers);
    • Retailers seek to approximate the amount of data collected by e-commerce retailers.
  • Retailers use sensors that track customer’s activities on the retail floor, collect data about customers’ behavior on other platforms, and create customer profiles using social media posts.
  • Retailers use data in ways that could harm workers:
    • Retailer’s efforts to optimize scheduling leads to unfair and unpredictable schedules for workers.
    • Retailers pressure workers to reveal information learned from encounters with customers, making the worker less valuable to the firm.
    • Retail data collection supports automation and the replacement of workers.
  • Some scheduling software developers had adapted their software in response to critics, giving workers more power to alter unworkable schedules; this raises the possibility that software could advance workers’ interests.



 Karen Levy

About Karen Levy

Karen Levy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University, associate member of the faculty of Cornell Law School, and field faculty in Sociology, Science and Technology Studies, Media Studies, and Data Science. Professor Levy researches the legal, organizational, social, and ethical aspects of data-intensive technologies. Her work explores what happens when we use digital technologies to enforce rules and make decisions about people, particularly in contexts marked by conditions of inequality.